David Foster Wallace’s Greatest Gift

“Having had a spiritual awakening as a result of these steps, we resolved to carry this message to other alcoholics and to practice these principles in all our affairs.” – The 12th step of Alcoholics Anonymous

When David Foster Wallace was promoting Infinite Jest, he was coy about how much his experience of Alcoholics Anonymous had affected the book. “I went with friends to an open AA meeting, and got addicted to them,” he told Newsweek in 1996. “I was never a member—I was a voyeur. When I ended up really liking it was when I let people there know this and they didn’t care.” Why exactly Wallace felt the need to dissemble about the extent of his involvement with AA, which began in 1989 and continued until his death in 2007, can only be guessed at, but several possibilities present themselves. There is, of course, the persistent taboo surrounding addiction, a taboo stronger in 1996 than it is in 2022. There is also the desire, common to all novelists, to disguise the real-world sources of characters and narratives. Wallace had drawn extensively upon his experiences in AA and Granada House, the real-life counterpart of Infinite Jest’s Ennet House, and was doubtless concerned both to protect the anonymity of those concerned and to conceal his creative debt to them. What is certain, however, is that Wallace’s reticence was in no way indicative of an aversion to the program as such, for according to his biographer D.T. Max during the most intense periods of Infinite Jest’s compositionWallace attended no fewer than two recovery meetings per day. At this time he had been sober for over two years, a point at which even devoted AA members rarely attend more than two or three meetings per week. That he chose to keep to such a rigorous schedule two years into sobriety indicates an uncommon degree of investment in the program—or at the very least that, in Wallace’s words, a benign “addiction” was substituting for more pernicious ones.

Whatever the case, there were probably many reasons why Wallace remained so devoted to AA, as many recovering alcoholics do. He was certainly grateful that the fellowship had, as he said to the editor Steven Moore, saved him from dying “in a most gnarly and inglorious way” before the age of 30. He had also found a uniquely nourishing community in AA’s melting pot of personality and experience. Because of their distance from the academic and literary worlds in which he worked, the company of his fellow addicts, most of whom were working class and unimpressed with Wallace’s hyper-articulate intellect, made him feel both “unalone and unstressed.” They knew how to support him without crowding him, and often adopted him as a kind of eccentric godson. (One couple even hung a stocking for him every Christmas.) But probably the main reason for Wallace’s continued fidelity to AA both in his life and work was more personal and (in the secular sense) vocational, and is written into the text of Infinite Jest itself:

“Giving It Away is a cardinal Boston AA principle. The term’s derived from an epigrammatic description of recovery in Boston AA: ‘You give it up to get it back to give it away.’ Sobriety in Boston is regarded as less a gift than a sort of cosmic loan. You can’t pay the loan back, but you can pay it forward, by spreading the message that despite all appearances AA works, spreading this message to the next new guy who’s tottered in to a meeting and is sitting in the back row unable to hold his cup of coffee. The only way to hang onto sobriety is to give it away.”

All recovering alcoholics, having reached the twelfth and final step of recovery, are enjoined to “carry the message” of AA to other alcoholics and to “practice its principles in all their affairs.” The idea of step 12 is not that it serve as a one-way threshold into sobriety, but rather as a continually renewing commitment, less a discrete stage of development than a philosophy of life. The recovering alcoholic is reminded every day that it is only by the grace of a “power greater than himself” that he has been granted the gift of sobriety, and that it is incumbent upon him to “pay it forward” by helping other sufferers. The only way, paradoxically, to remain in recovery is to bring others in with you.

Zadie Smith, in her 2007 essay on Wallace, wrote about the “difficult gifts” that he gave his readers—gifts that even many sympathetic readers were unable or unwilling to accept.

“Perhaps it was easy, when you read Wallace, to distrust ‘the agenda of the consciousness behind the text.’ Did he truly want to give you a gift, or only to demonstrate his own? For why should we be expected to tease out references to De Chirico and logotherapy, or know what happens during an eclipse, or what polymerase does, or the many nuances of the word prone? Why go through the pain if this is all we are to get in return: ‘Discursive portraits of relentlessly self-absorbed whiners, set down in an unappetizing mix of psychobabble, scholarly jargon and stream-of-consciousness riffs?’”

Smith’s analysis here is not unfair to Wallace, and captures well the tension around which much of his fiction is poised. “I’ve worked hard,” he often seems to say, “to create a sophisticated, difficult gift for you, the reader. Are you now willing to do the work required to appreciate it?” What Smith misses in her essay, though, is a gift that probably only someone within the recovery community could appreciate. While Wallace, from the beginning to the end of his career, did indeed present his readers with difficult gifts, he had also affirmed his desire to create “morally passionate, passionately moral fiction” based on “single-entendre principles” of communication. Sincerity and humanity, antidotes to the cool, disaffected nihilism that Wallace observed in his contemporaries, had become as important to his sense of fiction as to his continued work in recovery, and the absolute sincerity with which he extols the virtues and efficacy of AA unites, in a moment of life-and-work consilience, these otherwise independent threads of his experience. The common reader, one who has not experienced addiction from the inside, may not recognize Wallace’s defense of recovery as a gift. But for the addict, the reader who knows that her very survival depends on her ability to submit to AA’s self-billed “simple program,” this gift is not only “easy,” in the sense that it is offered as ingenuously as possible. It is life-changing—indeed, potentially life-saving—and comes directly from the author’s heart.

            This is not to say, of course, that embracing recovery had been easy for Wallace. Indeed, perhaps the most compelling part of Infinite Jest’s case for AA is the eloquent, often hilarious way it lays out the common objections to it. “So then at forty-six years of age I came here to learn to live by clichés,” says Geoffrey Day, a wine and Quaaludes addict who, like Wallace, had worked in academia before hitting bottom. “To turn my will and life over to the care of clichés. One day at a time. Easy does it. First things first. Courage is fear that has said its prayers. Ask for help. Thy will not mine be done. It works if you work it. Grow or go. Keep coming back.” Day’s voice here is clearly a version of Wallace’s own, a self-deriding parody of the author’s objections to AA during his early sobriety.

“I used to think in long compound sentences with subordinate clauses and even the odd polysyllable. Now I find I needn’t. Now I live by the dictates of macramé samplers ordered from the back-page ad of an old Reader’s Digest or Saturday Evening Post. Easy does it. Remember to remember. But for the grace of capital-g God. Turn it over. Terse, hard-boiled. Monosyllabic. Good old Norman Rockwell–Paul Harvey wisdom. I walk around with my arms out straight in front of me and recite these clichés.”

Day publically believes, as Wallace privately believed, that he is too smart for AA, that its blend of hortatory one-liners and non-specific “God stuff” are too simplistic to work on an intellect as advanced as his. He erects, Wallace writes, “Denial-type fortifications with some kind of intellectualish showing-off,” and tries to take refuge in his head, not realizing that “the Disease makes its command headquarters in the head.” He is, in effect, an avatar of Wallace the over-educated, under-experienced newcomer to a world that, though it seems impossibly foreign to him, he has been destined for all his life.

The obvious move for Wallace, having set up a parallel between Day and his own experience, would be to usher Day along the redemptive arc that he had followed himself. After all, of all Ennet House’s residents, it is Day who most closely resembles, in intellectual and cultural terms, not only Wallace himself but Wallace’s readers. They are much more likely to identify with him, with his graduate-level erudition and pretensions, than they are with the junkies and petty crooks that make up most of the Ennet House population. And yet, this is not what Wallace does. Instead, he not only makes Day the least sympathetic of Ennet House’s residents (with the possible exception of the cat-murdering Randy Lenz), he accords the role of redeemed redeemer, the unironic message-carrier of AA, to Don Gately, a recovering alcohol and Demerol addict with a middle-school education. Gately, who has, in D.T. Max’s phrase, “a kind of Dostoyevskian gloss to him,” has the richest interior life of all the characters in the book, and becomes a kind of prism for recovery as a universal metaphor of redemption—the individual details of these recoveries varyingly refracted depending on the experience and personalities of those involved.

Granada House, the real-life model for Ennet House

Wallace’s reasons for giving Gately this responsibility were partly literary—he was an ardent admirer of Dostoyevsky, and appreciated the power of Holy Fool characters like Alyosha Karamazov to universalize narratives of redemption—but probably also derived from the demotic spirit of AA itself. “We are average Americans,” says the Big Book, “all sections of this country and many of its occupations are represented, as well as many political, economic, social, and religious backgrounds. We are people who normally would not mix. But there exists among us a fellowship, friendliness, and an understanding which is indescribably wonderful.” AA is the only place, says a maxim of the program, where a plumber can teach a priest how to live, and Wallace had experienced the power of this class-crossing discipleship first-hand. His first sponsor in Boston was, he told a friend, a “motorhead from the South Shore,” and the distance between this (still anonymous) person’s experience and his own was probably as great, if not greater than that between the proverbial plumber and priest. And yet, Wallace knew, like so many intellectuals in recovery, that “his best thinking got him there,” and that his best chance of survival, as he said to a former professor, was to apprentice himself to their way of living. A lesson in humility, in submitting to the wisdom of people less “smart” and educated than he was, was essential for Wallace in adapting to the AA program, and he seems, in making Gately his paradigm of successful recovery, to be encouraging the reader to do the same.

Gately’s initial resistance to AA, although lacking the “intellectualish” fortifications erected by Day, certainly reflects the snobbery and skepticism that hampered Wallace.

“Gately couldn’t for the life of him figure out how just sitting on hemorrhoid-hostile folding chairs every night looking at nose-pores and listening to clichés could work…this goofy slapdash anarchic system of low-rent gatherings and corny slogans and saccharin grins and hideous coffee is so lame you just know there’s no way it could ever work except for the utterest morons.”

Later, when counseling a newcomer to the program, Gately recounts his how this snobbery eventually grew into contempt,” saying that that he “hate[d] this limp AA drivel about gratitude and humility and miracles and how he hate[d] it and thinks it’s horseshit and hat[ed] the AAs and how they all seem[ed] like limp smug moronic self-satisfied shit-eating pricks with their lobotomized smiles and goopy sentiments and how he wishe[d] them all violent Technicolor harm in the worst way.” To be sure, even though it is nominally Gately speaking these words, these bravura rhetorical take-downs—replete with witty imagery (“Technicolor harm”) and lip-smacking alliterations—are not those of a sub-literate Demerol addict who never finished high school. Indeed, some critics have taken issue with the obvious blending of Gately’s voice into Wallace’s high octane, belles-lettristic style when descriptions of recovery are involved.  (Are we really to believe, for example, that Gately thinks in phrases like “goofy slapdash anarchic system” and “violent Technicolor harm?”)

Such judgments do not necessarily misread Wallace’s stylistic choices at these moments, but they do rather miss the point. The modulations in tense and register that occur during Gately’s apologia for AA—notably the inflation of vocabulary and shift to second-person address—do represent an eruption of Wallace’s own voice within the text, but only insofar as they reflect, in an appropriately post-modern way, the cardinal AA principle of “identifying” between speaker and listener. The power of one alcoholic testifying before another, drawing upon shared feeling and experience to communicate in a common language, is recognized as one of the pillars of AA’s success, and Wallace is calibrating his language to reflect this dynamic between his consciousness and the readers. If Gately sounds much more like Wallace here than he does otherwise, it is because Wallace knows what kind of language will communicate most directly with his reader, the style and rhetoric to which she will intuitively respond. The power and “success” of Gately’s recovery testimony is, according to the standards of the program, directly proportionate to the reader’s/listener’s ease in identifying with it, and here Wallace is making the “IDing,” between Gately and the reader as well as his interlocutor, as frictionless as possible.

This dovetailing of narrative and personal witness only becomes clearer as Gately’s recovery journey unfolds. At first, desperation and a court order the only things keeping him in the AA program, but he soon passes from frustration at the program’s system of “low-rent gatherings and corny slogans” to the stunned, even suspicious realization that it actually seems to work.

“[A]fter maybe five months Gately was riding the Greenie at 0430 to go clean human turds out of the Shattuck shower and all of a sudden realized that quite a few days had gone by since he’d even thought about Demerol or Talwin or even weed…It was the first time he’d been out of this kind of mental cage since he was maybe ten. He couldn’t believe it. He wasn’t Grateful so much as kind of suspicious…How could some kind of Higher Power he didn’t even believe in magically let him out of the cage when Gately had been a total hypocrite in even asking something he didn’t believe in to let him out of a cage he had like zero hope of ever being let out of?”

Gately’s difficulty is overcoming disbelief, in accepting Step 2’s claim that “only a higher power could relieve him of his alcoholism,” and then his subsequent amazement that this in no way hinders his recovery, and is a direct translation of Wallace’s own. Wallace had, Max says, drawn upon his readings of Aristotle, Wittgenstein, and other philosophers to create a conception of God that he could believe in, but said he still he found trying to pray “hypocritical.” This didn’t stop him from trying, however, and he soon made the discovery that even militant atheists make when they commit to AA: No matter who or what your higher power is—whether it’s the Christian God, the AA fellowship, “Going Off Drinking,” or something else—it’s the act of surrendering your will that counts. You give away your will, your obsessive desire to control yourself and those around you, and you miraculously have that will returned to you, purged of its selfish, self-destructive impulses. And all you have to do is accept that just maybe there’s someone, something, out therethat will help you if you keep an open mind. “I used to think you had to believe to pray,” Wallace later recalled hearing at a meeting. “Now I know I had it ass-backwards.”

The fact that such an emphasis is laid on this revelation, on the persuasive power of a reluctant, even grudging conversion to AA’s philosophy, speaks volumes about the “single-entendre” motives actuating Wallace here. Where so much of his previous fiction, and indeed much of Infinite Jest itself, has the character of a Chinese puzzle box, with obsessive intellectual effort required to recuperate the rewards concealed beneath its surface, the passages defending AA are offered up, at least to those who might benefit from them, on a proverbial silver platter. Sobriety is, he writes, “less as a gift than as a sort of cosmic loan. You can’t pay it back, but you can pay it forward, by spreading the message that despite all appearances AA works.” The earnestness of these passages is striking, particularly when one discovers that, in a book saturated in ironic Po-Mo structural/thematic tropes, they are entirely devoid of irony. But the shock of this ingenuousness is also, in its way, part of the point. “If we are painstaking about this phase of our development,” says the Big Book in a passage often used to close AA meetings, “we will be amazed before we are half way through.” A sense of surprise and discovery, a revealing of previously unimagined horizons, is one of the great joys of recovery, and the shock at finding an author willing to bare his soul in this way, to so genuinely offer the benefit of his knowledge and experience, primes us to accept the even more shocking truth that AA, once you give it a chance, really does deliver the goods.

David Foster Wallace in 1996

Leslie Jamison, herself a recovering alcoholic,writes in her 2018 memoir The Recovering about reading Infinite Jest during her second stab at sobriety:

Infinite Jest had metabolized recovery with so much rigor that it had already asked all of my questions and weathered all of my intellectual discomforts…The novel offered an encounter with recovery charged by double consciousness: both interrogating and affirming it, investigating its labor, its oddness, and its sublimity. The novel was questioning the recitations of recovery but still alive to its miracles, and not afraid to say so.”

Jamison, an Ivy-educated writer and academic like Wallace, has a strong claim to be his ideal reader, the kind of person he knew himself uniquely qualified to reach, and her reaction to Infinite Jest is surely that of hundreds, if not thousands of self-flattering “intellectuals” who have turned to it in recovery.

“I read Infinite Jest like a desperate old man running his metal detector over the sand, waiting for every ding that signified buried wisdom…Perhaps that made me simplify him, as I sucked on lozenges of truth—‘sometimes human beings have to just sit in one place and, like, hurt’—but his novel had gotten me through plenty of moments of just sitting there and, like, hurting.”

It may be that to a certain species of alcoholic, it is only the heartfelt testimony of a genius like Wallace that can make these lozenges palatable.  “I’m smarter and better-read than you are,” he seems to say to them. “I’ve considered every philosophical and aesthetic objection to AA, every weak point in its unpromising architecture of clichés and metaphysical pabulum, and yet I’ve still made it work. And if it works for me then it can definitely work for you.” To an addict, particularly one plagued with Wallace’s neurotic, intellectualizing tendencies, such testimony is of invaluable, inexpressible comfort.

It certainly was for me. The first time I walked into a recovery meeting, in a rundown church in Paris’s 5th arrondissement, Wallace and Infinite Jest were very much on my mind. Beyond the clichés I’d absorbed from TV and movies—Styrofoam cups, rusted folding chairs, miasmas of cigarette smoke—practically everything I knew about AA came from either the novel or my readings about Wallace’s life. I knew that he’d struggled with its hokeyness, its crimes against English style (the Big Book is famously badly written), and that it had often been necessary for him to substitute God with “Good Orderly Direction” to buy into its metaphysics. But I also that he’d been brought back from a brink much more vertiginous than my own, and that the principle of “keeping it simple,” of treating the program like a recipe on a box of cake mix, had seen him through as effectively as it had the legions of AAs less learned than he. So I took a leap of faith and, putting a copy of IJ on my bedside table along with the Big Book, jumped in, as a man in one of my first meetings suggested, with both feet.

As of this writing, the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous has been translated into over 100 languages; Infinite Jest only five

Over the next few weeks, re-reading Infinite Jest as I stumbled through early recovery, I was astonished to discover not only the same insights that sustained Jamison, but to find Wallace perceptible in his writing in a way I never had been before. The dazzling stylist who’d wowed me as a college student was still there, but seemed more like an afterthought, an agreeable sideshow to the main event. Suddenly, when I was desperate for guidance and reassurance as I embarked on a terrifying new phase of life, one alcoholic looking for help from others, here was one of the great literary minds of the last 50 years offering me what I didn’t even know I needed.

“And so you Hang In and stay sober and straight, and out of sheer hand-burned-on-hot-stove terror you heed the improbable-sounding warnings not to stop pounding out the nightly meetings even after the Substance-cravings have left and you feel like you’ve got a grip on the thing at last and can now go it alone, you still don’t try to go it alone, you heed the improbable warnings because by now you have no faith in your own sense of what’s really improbable and what isn’t, since AA seems, improbably enough, to be working, and with no faith in your own senses you’re confused, flummoxed, and when people with AA time strongly advise you to keep coming you nod robotically and keep coming.”

It’s remarkable to read passages like this and to feel personally addressed by them, like the “you” is being whispered to you across time and space. It was as though I were encountering the “real” Wallace for the first time, like our shared alcoholism had allowed me to see beneath IJ’s sinews of Po-Mo artifice to find the beating heart underneath.

There is nothing, I now know, special or unique about this experience. Jamison’s account, infinitely more thorough and accomplished than my own, proves that Wallace has a similar effect on many, if not most like-minded alcoholics. But this very absence of specialness, the banality of my response in common with those of so many like me, is also appropriate, for it means that I cannot do any more in response to Wallace’s gift than what AA’s are enjoined to do every day: cultivate an “attitude of gratitude.” I am grateful, then, that Wallace decided to include within his magnum opus the best ever fictional case for Alcoholics Anonymous. I am grateful that he decided to “pay it forward” to future generations of addicts with the gift of his testimony. And I am grateful above all that he managed to marry this gift with his own figurative (and yes, sometimes difficult) “gifts” for English prose—for if Infinite Jest were any less dazzling, its merits as a work of literature any less pronounced, then the more modest, life-saving portions of the book might never have seen the light of day.

Part of me, the part learning to cultivate an AA’s suspicion of vanity, suspects that Wallace would have resisted such tributes, calling Infinite Jest’s AA evangelism just another part of his “working the program.” But another part of me, the part that relies, as Wallace did for nearly 20 years, on this program’s tradition of gratitude to survive, hopes he would have understood.

Andrew Marvell’s Hair

Embodied Emblems of Gendered and Authorial Ambiguity

According to the National Portrait Gallery in London, there exist twelve confirmed portraits of Andrew Marvell, with a further four that are still in question. In each of these portraits we see a grave, long-nosed young man dressed in a dark overcoat with an elaborate white collar and long, dark hair parted in the center.[i] Some portraits render this hair curlier than others—notably the unattributed engraving of 1681, in which it borders on the frizzy—but it always falls at least to the level of his shoulders, and symmetrically frames his face in the “cavalier” style popular among upper-class men.

It would, naturally, be spurious to suppose too much from these portraits much information about the poet’s appearance and grooming habits (portraits are notoriously unreliable records of how someone actually looked), but on this evidence we can deduce a surprising amount about the poet and his manner of self-presentation. In eschewing the modest, close-cut style favored by parliamentarians of the period, Marvell is taking a provocative stance of non-conformity with aristocratic norms. He is also, according to Stephen Dobranski, adopting a style closely associated with poets, with long hair alluding implicitly to Apollo, whose harp and lute “were said to be strung with his own tresses.[ii]” Perhaps most intriguingly, he is acting in defiance of St. Paul’s frequently quoted admonition in 1 Corinthians that “if a man [has] long hair, it is a shame unto him,” a move that, given Marvell’s complex relationship with the church and other authorities, could potentially be interpreted as anti-clerical.[iii]

Whatever the nature of Marvell’s relationship to his own hair, however, it is clear that the image of it, at least as poetic device, held a particular interest for him. Once we begin to look for it, we find hair or hairy[iv] imagery cropping up with remarkable frequency in his work, whether it is the speaker in “The Fair Singer” becoming entangled in his lover’s “curled trammels,[v]” Ben threateningly waving his “gray locks” in “Tom May’s Death,[vi]” Daphnis rending his “locks” in grief over Chloe,[vii] or any number of the more than a dozen examples I count across his comparatively small oeuvre.[viii]

We overanalyze common, proliferative images like this at our peril—some images, the skeptic will say, are too ubiquitous to be effectively generalized about—but in this case the ubiquity of these images seems to me significant, particularly when considered in their conceptual and rhetorical contexts. As I will demonstrate in this essay, Marvell will often invoke hair when he is attempting to negotiate a particularly delicate rhetorical or ideological position, effecting the kind of conceptual acrobatics that resolve ambiguities or contradictions (such as those of gender or the author’s political position) into figures of equivocation. Why this is so is difficult to define, particularly because Marvell plays so deftly with ambiguity on every conceivable level, but I will suggest that the image of human hair, along with its concomitant motifs of weaving and entanglement, serves as an embodied emblem for a particular kind of rhetorical process, one which negotiates contradictions by keeping them unresolved and figures ambivalent structures of multivalent (read, non-committal) meaning. I will analyze this according to principles of Ramist reasoning and epistemology as they were commonly understood in the 17th century—which I believe, as I shall demonstrate, inform Marvell’s understanding of reasoning as a kind of metaphorical “weaving”—and show how the chameleonic Marvell makes use of these images to encode sophisticated ambiguities of gendered and authorial identification.

  1. Background: Ramus, Retexere, and Images of Ambiguity

The motif that Marvell most commonly associates with human hair is one of weaving or, as he says more playfully in “The First Anniversary,” the “skillful looms which through the costly thread / Of purling ore, a shining wave do shed.[ix]” This figure of weaving, at once action and image, is freighted with a broad range of implicit and associative information that is largely lost on the contemporary reader. In the 21st century, our familiarity with the 16th century logician Petrus Ramus is largely limited to second-hand knowledge gathered through study of early modern culture, particularly poets and philosophers.  In the seventeenth century however, and particularly in the rarified cultural circles in which poets like Marvell moved, Ramus’s principles of logic and dialectics were so widely studied and accepted as to be part of the common intellectual discourse.[x] Indeed, Walter J. Ong, author of Ramus, Method, and the Decay of Dialogue, notes that in England “Ramism is the central route over which the Ciceronian rhetorical tradition and the scholastic logical tradition move in reorienting themselves for the modern world.[xi]” In simpler terms, anyone with any formal education in the 16th and 17th centuries would have learned to reason according to Ramist principles, and his (Ramus’s) particular, dichotomizing way of looking at the world had thus a profound impact on concepts of reason and dialectics as they were evolving in renaissance Europe.

There is, of course, nowhere near enough room in this essay to adequately address the scope and complexity of Ramus’s principles as they were understood in the 16-17th centuries. For the sake of clarity, however, a brief (and necessarily reductive) primer on these principles is necessary: Ramus’s primary innovation in the field of logical pedagogy, laid out in his 1555 work Dialectique, was to schematize reason itself as a branching system of dualisms. (He divided “logic,” for example, into a dialect of “judgment” and “invention,” judgment into a dialectic of “the axiomatic” and the “dianoietic,” the dianoietic into a dialectic of “method” and “syllogism,” and so on.) This tabular “outlining” of rational thought, within which any coherent proposition was reduced into a series of branching, irreconcilable categories, re-established the dialect as the central paradigm for understanding the world and how it functioned. This allowed Ramus, extrapolating outward from this paradigm, to reframe not only his view of logic but of existence as a whole according to this principle, effecting what Ong calls without exaggeration “a reorganization of the whole world of knowledge and indeed of the whole human lifeworld.[xii]

This cannot, of course, account entirely for the regnancy of contradiction within 17th century poetic thought—the novelist Martin Amis once offered his New Statesman readers 50 pence for every poem they could name that was not based on duality or contradiction[xiii]— but it does provide essential context for understanding the intellectual climate of the period.

The way these dialectics were supposed to work in Ramus’s logic is inordinately complicated, but it is not strictly relevant to us here. What is relevant, rather, is the image Ramus invokes to described the interaction of binary elements—be they forces, propositions, ideas, etc.—in his system : Retexere. This word can be translated in various ways, but Ong favors the poetic “unweaving,” and this formulation is strikingly evocative for a body of work not otherwise rich in pictorial language. It evokes at once the movement of separation or unwinding and the state of being unwound, that is a fluctuant, indeterminate state between two binary positions. In this sense, the action/image of retexere is the enactment of a paradox—a figure that is both two things and one, that locates its essence in a state between defined, clearly opposing spaces. For a culture that considered paradox and the resolution of contradiction to be essential to poetic wit,[xiv] this concept, even if only absorbed implicitly, translated into remarkably diverse explorations of contradiction and synthesis across the literature of the 16th-17th centuries. Naturally enough, this was particularly true of writers and philosophers, and poetic imagery of the period, as Rosemond Tuve amply demonstrated in Elizabethan Imagery, is saturated in rhetorical and metaphorical strategies that reflect Ramist thinking.[xv] To claim a conceptual relationship between images of hair and figures of dialectical negotiation is neither spurious nor casuistic, then, for any images suggesting imagistic “weaving” would have invariably evoked Ramist logical principles for educated readers of the 17th century. (Indeed, the poet William D’Avenant, in his preface to Gondibert, evenwent so far to define poetry itself as “a webb consisting of the subt’lest threads…considerately woven out of our selves.[xvi]”)

What distinguishes Marvell from his contemporaries with respect to his explorations of Ramist symbolism is, naturally enough, his consistent interest in ambivalence or equivocation. Whereas someone like John Donne in “A Valdiction: Forbidden Mourning” uses a Ramist-inspired structure to reconcile the duality of fate and love (that poem’s compass conceit, illustrating the capacity of love to paradoxically remain unchanged in spite of changing circumstances, is perhaps as masterful a poetic imagining of Ramist principles as can be found), or Philip Sidney uses them prolifically to negotiate the contradictions in Astrophil and Stella,[xvii]Marvell typically reorients the trajectory of this reasoning toward a more equivocal resolution, keeping the “weave” of his thinking deliberately undone. Just as Marvell exploits ambiguity in his use of pronouns to avoid specific gendered and authorial identification,[xviii] then, so does his invocation of hair allow him to limn complex, multivalent structures of signification without definitively placing himself (his perspective, his ideology, etc.) within them. It is true that the very nature of these images makes them difficult to analyze in concrete terms, but I will propose to define them both according to the Ramist-informed conceptual framework I have laid out, and in reference to a useful definition of ambiguity put forth by William Empson in Seven Types of Ambiguity, one whereby discrepant propositions are set in concerted opposition before “combin[ing] to make clear a more complicated state of mind in the author.[xix]” As paradoxical as it may seem, in other words, to define images characterized by their indefinability, I will demonstrate that these framings allow us to better understand the complex networks of semantic generation and negation within which these images operate.

  1. Images of Hair in Context

To explore these images in action, we begin with perhaps the most straightforward example of hair-inspired equivocation in Marvell’s oeuvre. In “The Gallery,” we note a stark dualism figured in the image of its subject’s hair. First, in stanza 2,

Here thou are painted in a dress

            Of an inhuman murderess;

            Examining upon our hearts

            Thy fertile shop of cruel arts:

            …Of which the most tormenting are

            Black eyes, red lips, and curled hair.[xx]

And later, in stanza 7,

But, of these pictures and the rest,

            That at the entrance likes me best:

            …A tender shepherdess, whose hair

            Hangs loosely playing in the air

            Transplanting flowers from the green hill,

            To crown her head, and bosom fill.[xxi]

This poem takes the form of a debate about the virtues of an unidentified woman within the author’s mind—these virtues figured as discrete portraits in an imagined gallery—and in these stanzas we observe Marvell figuring her sharpest contradictions with hairy imagery. The implication of the woman’s “curled hair” in line, along with her black eyes and red lips, is that her character itself has a devious quality, reflecting (like Milton’s Eve) deviations in morality with literal deviations in her hair. By contrast, the “tender shepherdess” evoked in stanza 7 has hair that hangs “loosely playing in the air,” and is seen crowning this hair with symbols of feminine innocence and purity. The primary “weave” of this poem’s dialectic, then, is established as a counterpoise of hair-related symbolism, with the speaker enacting in stanzas 6 and 7 a kind of Empsonian synthesis of his subject’s contrarieties into an ambivalent whole.

            These pictures and a thousand more do store

            Of thee my Gallery do store…

            But of these pictures and the rest,

            That at the entrance likes me best:

            Where the same posture, and the look

            Remain, with which I first was took.[xxii]

The subject is at once both and neither of the poet’s discrepant images of her, a figure unweaving but not as yet unwoven, presented before us as somewhere in the middle. Resolution is found not through a dialectical negotiation of the singer’s disparate qualities, but rather an equivocal reframing of her totality (contradictions included) into a more “complicated” state of mind, with hair acting as the catalyst for this transformation.

As a rhetorical strategy, this is (by Marvell’s standards) fairly straightforward: Two contrasting images of hair conduce smoothly, by way of adroit juxtaposition, to a Marvellian figure of conceptual ambiguity. We reflect, however, that the authorial stakes of this poem, a variation on a common genre of the period, are comparatively low: Little of Marvell the author can or needs to be inferred from the text to understand it, even accounting for the mysterious identity of the subject. As soon as the stakes of authorial identification are raised, however—when questions of religious, gendered, or ideological positioning are invoked—Marvell’s handling of these images becomes considerably more complex. Take for example, the hair/weaving motif that is employed in “The Coronet”:

            I gather flowers (my fruits are only flowers),

            Dismantling all the fragrant towers

            …Thinking (so I myself deceive)

            So rich a chaplet thence to weave

            As never yet the King of Glory wore:

            Alas, I find the serpent old

            That, twining in his speckled breast,

            About the flowers disguised does fold

            With wreaths of fame and interest.[xxiii]

The conceit of this poem is a symbolic counterpoise of the “weave” of the poet’s devotional verse against the “wreaths,” which is to say showy coils or convolutions, of vanity and self-interest. It is therefore engaging with decidedly more delicate material in its play with authorship and authorial identification, with questions of religious practice and allegiance (the stakes of which could be deadly in 17th century Britain) coming into play. There is no explicit reference to hair as he does this, but we note that it is in making garlands for “his savior’s head”—implicitly collocating Christ’s hair with the garland’s weave—that the poet limns this difficult contradiction.

I gather flowers (my fruits are only flowers)

            …So rich a chaplet thence to weave

            As never yet the King of Glory wore

            …Alas, I find the serpent old

            That, twining in his speckled breast,

            About the flowers disguised does fold,

            With wreaths of fame and interest.

            Ah, foolish man, that wouldst debase with them,

            And mortal glory, Heaven’s diadem![xxiv]

John Carey notes that the central conflict of this poem inheres in the poet’s inability to extricate his desires for worldly fame (the “wreaths of fame and interest”) from his devotional impulses, and Marvell figures this contradiction through a reflexive contortion of “weaving” as an emblem of creation.[xxv] By attempting to weave garlands for the head of Christ, in simpler terms, the poet is tempted through this very act into a symbolic “twining” of his religious impulses with his own vanity and desire for self-promotion, making his virtue the irreconcilable obverse of his vice. He can’t serve God and his own ambition equally, but he finds his means serving one sinuously entangled with the other. This subtle collocation of hair and weaving thus facilitates a classic Marvellian ambiguity, the “self-inwoven” figure convolved/confused with its own identity, and forces the reader to at once synthesize and dualize the poetic subject (making the act of “weaving” both one thing and two contradictory things). In perhaps Marvell’s most naked revelation of religious feeling, then, it is the yoking of hair and weaving that gives him his entrée into the contrarieties that animated his thought, and us as readers the frame for understanding their (poetically, very productive) reciprocation.

Indeed, this figure of the “self-inwoven” simile has particular relevance for our purposes, for not only does it in itself mirror the dialectical procedures evoked in the hairy images we have discussed, it is also yoked in multiple instances to these images themselves. A “self-inwoven” simile, we recall, is a figure that, according to Christopher Rick’s definition in “Its Own Resemblance,” “both reconciles and opposes, in that it describes something both as itself and as something external to it which it could not possibly be.[xxvi]” These figures abound in Marvell’s poetry, and aptly illustrate the complex dimensions of equivocation and compromise that enable him to play so elusively with authorial identification. More concisely, here is William Keach describing such images as they typically function in context: “Reflexive images call unusual attention to the act of mind they presuppose, an act of mind which combines a moment of analysis and division, in which an aspect is separated from the idea to which it belongs, and a moment of synthesis and reunion, in which the separated aspect is brought back into relationship with the idea.[xxvii]” We have seen how images of human hair, when deployed in metaphorical or illustrative contexts, allow Marvell to mirror “woven” patterns of dialectical thought, often in the service of equivocal authorial positioning. It is perhaps within these figures of reflexive, self-inwoven identification, however, that the full semantic complexity of these images is explored, with the symbolic qualities of image assimilating to broader matrices of thought and conceptualization.

As an example of this, we turn to “A Poem upon the Death of His Late Highness the Lord Protector,” the very poem Ricks adduces in “Its Own Resemblance” to illustrate the range and intellectual rigor of Marvell’s reflexivity:

            That Providence which had so long the care

            Of Cromwell’s head, and numbered every hair,

            Now in its self (the glass where all appears)

Had seen the period of his golden years.[xxviii]

As an instance of reflexive, “in-bending” imagery this is passage fairly straightforward: Providence, imagined as the caring benefactor of Oliver Cromwell, becomes “in its self” a witness to Cromwell’s growth and senescence, becoming both subject and object of reflection in the metaphor. On closer examination, however, we may wonder how to account for the (frankly bizarre) reference to Cromwell’s hair in line 2. Is it a token of paternal solicitude, a sign of Cromwell’s uniquely intimate relationship with providence? Or is it simply a poetic expedient, humanizing Cromwell and furnishing a useful rhyme for “care” in the previous line? In all likelihood there is truth to both of these possibilities, but bearing in mind what we have seen of Marvell’s hair images thus far, we note how seamlessly the reference to Cromwell’s “numbered” locks insinuates itself into the reflexive, self-inwoven figure of lines 3-4 (“That Providence which… / …numbered every hair, / Now in its self (the glass where all appears) / Had seen the period of his golden years.[xxix]”) It is as if the very image of hair is “woven” into the following lines, adumbrating a Ramist structure through its very turn into the following phrase. (The word verse itself derives from the Latin vers, meaning to turn across a line.[xxx])

We see, then, that the very form of Marvell’s contorted, ambivalent musings on Cromwell’s legacy (the poem vacillates between encomium and critique) is this given a physical and metaphorical shape, with complex gestures of equivocation referring back to this metaphor throughout the text. It is important to remember that Marvell’s political poems—including those written before, during, and after the revolution—are always couched in calculatedly ambiguous terms, leaving sufficient “wiggle room” in matters of interpretation to protect against invidious accusations. What we see here, then, in the articulation of these equivocal rhetorical structures through an image of human hair, is essentially an instantiation of the same effect evoked in “The Gallery,” but evoked here as a kind of prefiguring metaphor—the figure of hair, including its reflexive turn, primes us for interpreting the ambiguous “turns” of Marvell’s thought. It becomes a kind of loose, overriding conceit, less rigorous than a conceit in the purest sense, but sufficiently well-controlled to keep the “weave” of the poet’s argumentation from becoming definitively closed.

            As if to underline the effect of this apposition of hair and reflexivity, Marvell goes so far as to recapitulate the pairing in lines 67-74:

And now Eliza’s purple locks were shorn

            Where she so long her Father’s fate had worn:

            …Like polished mirrors, so his steely breast

            Had every figure of her woes expressed.[xxxi]

Though the metaphorical “turn” here is less pronounced than in lines 1-4 (the actual collocation of the images is deferred by five lines) we witness essentially the same effect—a bodily invocation of hair (“Eliza’s purple locks”) is enfolded into a broader framework of ambivalent conceptualization, with a reference to “polished mirrors” in line 73 reflecting once again the circinate, self-inwoven structure of the poem’s argument (“How good was Cromwell really? How honest can I be about his legacy?”) There is even an implicit invocation of hair, not unlike that we saw in “The Coronet,” employed in lines 228-233:

And in his alter’d face you something faigne
That threatens death he yet will live againe.
Not much unlike the saired Oake which shoots[xxxii]
To heav’n its branches and through earth its roots:
Whose spacious boughs are hung with Trophees row
And honour’d wreaths have oft the Victour crown.

Marvell is here describing the paradox that something can remain glorious even in death, and in so doing he evokes the image of wreaths “crowning” his metaphorical subject. Again the wreaths, a figure of circinate weaving, again a figure of paradox, and again the invocation of hair, this time implicit in the evocation of the crown. The controlling metaphor we witnessed established in the poems opening lines is thus brought back a second time, this time near the poem’s close, as if to symbolically close the “weave” of the poem’s argument while allowing Marvell, ever the political pragmatist, to dissimulate his authorial positions into Empson’s “more complicated state of mind.”

            We witness something similar in “The Loyal Scot,” another poem that deftly navigates the pitfalls of political tribute during unstable times.

Not so brave Douglas

            [Whose] modest beauty yet his sex did veil

            While envious virgins hope he is a male.

            His yellow locks curl back themselves to seek,

            Nor other courtship knew but to his cheek[xxxiii]

We see here another instance of deft authorial positioning (Douglas, as a “hero” of the bloody interregnum wars, was a figure of equivocal moral merit) and an insinuation of that hero’s hair into a figure of recursion (his locks literally “curl themselves back”) Like “A Poem upon the Death of his Late Highness,” this controlling metaphor of hairy “weaving” is established right from the start, with text’s subsequent equivocations implicitly referring back to it. We also witness an element of the gendered/sexual ambiguity that colors Marvell’s other explorations of hair imagery. There is an element of intimate, highly embodied flattery in the poet’s evocation of Douglas’s beauty—the reference to his cheek is particularly suggestive—and we see Marvell playing off this friction to complicate the gendered presentation of the author. The suggestive reference to “envious virgins” in line 17, coupled with the implied caress of line 20, adds a frisson of sexuality to the poet’s description of Douglas, a frisson that jars with the puritanical ethic that Douglas and his co-revolutionaries embodied. A reflexive image of hair has thus introduced two complicated dualities into the text—dualities which, as in Marvell’s political poems in general, will be ambiguously negotiated throughout the text.

This complex synthesis of gendered and authorial ambiguity is perhaps most revealingly explored in “The Last Instructions to a Painter,” a poem that funnels these three concepts into a spectacular hair metaphor in its final lines. This poem bristles with hairy, ramist-inspired symbolism from beginning to end, and enacts on a grand scale what we witnessed in “The Gallery” and “The Coronet. In analyzing the sorry state of his nation, good ship England and its military forces are compared to a dilapidated ship with “ropes untwine,[xxxiv]” and the solution posed by Marvell is a “chain,” that is to say a woven coupling of different elements: “Our wretched ships within their fate attend, / And all our hopes now on frail chain depend.[xxxv]” Marvell is inserting himself into a very complicated political debate here, seemingly weighing up the merits of a republican (read, anti-royal) takeover of the country against that of a unifying monarchy. The stakes of political and authorial identification, then, could hardly be higher, and we note that, even before introducing hair into the text, Marvell figures his equivocal position once again through the image of weaving:

The pleasing sight [Charles] often does prolong:

Her masts erect, tough cordage, timbers strong,

Her moving shapes, all these he does survey,

And all admires, but most his easy prey.[xxxvi]

In this vision of an England under a restored and empowered monarchy, the nation’s fraying ropes are rewoven into “cordage strong,” but they are also contorted into manacles of control, with cordage standing at once for political stability and—as we know from consulting “A Dialogue between the Resolved Soul and Created Pleasure[xxxvii]”—personal and political restraint. The central weave of this poem’s dialectic, then, is once again a Ramist contradiction—there appears to be no logical solution to this problem. Having established this weaving motif as the poem’s controlling metaphor, however, Marvell directs it toward a remarkable image in the final lines, integrated gendered and ideological equivocation in one fell swoop:

            [The King] wakes, and muses of th’ uneasy throne;

            Raise up a sudden shape with a virgin’s face

            (Though ill agree her posture, hour, or place),

            Naked as born, and her round arms behind

            With her own tresses, interwove and twined.[xxxviii]

This startling, literally embodied vision of England as a woman “naked as born…With her own tresses, interwove and twined” directs all of the dialectical energy that animates the poem into a spectacular metaphor for the tangled, interwoven politics of the period, and recapitulates the subtle codes of gender and authorial identification Marvell has explored. The king, the figure who ends the poem pondering the future of his country, is given the task of effecting the most consequential (in political terms), Ramist-inspired equivocation in Marvell’s oeuvre: “In his deep thoughts the wonder did increase, / And he divined ‘twas England or the Peace.[xxxix]” Facing the hairiest of hairy dilemmas, unable to resolve the knotted complexities of the political situation in his country, the king does exactly what the speaker in “The Gallery” does and, in finding a “solution” that is contrary to his own interests but in line with the nations,’ resolves it into a more complicated, and therefore more sophisticated state of mind.

  1. Conclusion

It is perhaps significant, given what we have seen of Marvell’s exploration of hair imagery to codify ambiguities, that “weaving” is one of the few explicit metaphors that he employs for the act of writing poetry itself. “Out of these scattered Sibyl’s leaves,” writes the poet in “Upon Appleton House,” “strange prophesies my fancy weaves.[xl]” This notion of fusing disparate, apparently unrelated elements into coherent wholes is a striking one, and throws interesting new light on what we have observed in Marvell’s handling of gendered and authorial ambiguities. If the defining quality of Marvell’s verse is its chameleonic navigation of contrariety, its resistance to attempts of ideological identification, then this “weaving” of discordant elements represents a key poetic strategy. The necessity to dissemble and equivocate in so many aspects of his authorial presentation, his constant recourse to ideological balancing acts, required a particular facility for metaphor, and some of his most subtle manipulations of  metaphor make use of hair. While I have not attended here to every example of hairy imagery across his oeuvre, and while irrefutable evidence of a conceptual link in Marvell’s mind between embodied images of hair and ambiguous gendered or authorial positioning is unlikely to emerge, I have demonstrated (I hope) that such images enable Marvell, in the poetic/philosophical terms that I’ve described, to explore and reify these ambiguities in a cogent and revealing way.


[i] “Andrew Marvell.” National Portrait Gallery. Accessed November 3, 2021. https://www.npg.org.uk/collections/search/person/mp02994/andrew-marvell.

[ii] Stephen Dobranski, “Clustering and Curling Locks: The Matter of Hair in Paradise Lost.”            PMLA , March 2010, Vol. 125, No. 2 (March 2010), pp. 337-353, 512.

[iii] Cited by Dobranski, 337.

[iv] English having no better adjective meaning “of or relating to hair” than the archaic “pileous,” I have had to make do with the more clumsy “hairy” throughout this paper.

[v] Andrew Marvell. “The Fair Singer.” In Andrew Marvell: The Complete Poems. Edited by ElizaIIIbeth Story Donno. (London: Penguin Books, 2005), 39, l. 9.

[vi] Andrew Marvell. “Tom May’s Death.” In Andrew Marvell: The Complete Poems, 59, l. 32.

[vii] Andrew Marvell. “Daphnis and Chloe.” In Andrew Marvell: The Complete Poems, 45, l. 34.

[viii] Accounting for ambiguous references to “locks,” my final count stands at 14.

[ix] Andrew Marvell. “The First Anniversary.” In Andrew Marvell: The Complete Poems, 131, l. 183.

[x] As a contemporary comparison, we might compare Ramism to the Rutherford model of atomic physics. Both represent constructivist, image-based theories of how the world works (even though, just as the world bears little material resemblance to Ramus’s system of outlines, molecules look nothing like the orbiting protons, neutrons, and electrons theorized by Rutherford, et al). The importance of these systems was their utility in framing the world’s functions in a logical and predictable ways, not their pictorial fidelity.

[xi] Walter J. Ong. Ramus, Method, and the Decay of Dialogue (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1958), 7, italics mine.

[xii] Ong, 16.

[xiii] Martin Amis. “Coleridge’s Beautiful Diseases.” In The War Against Cliché: Essays and Reviews 1971-2000 (London: Jonathan Cape, 2001), 177.

[xiv] George Williamson writes that contradiction “is at the center of poetic wit in the 17th century,” becoming “paradox [i.e. resolved contradiction] in the first half of the century, and antithesis [unresolved contradiction] in the second.”

[xv] Tuve, Rosemond. Elizabethan and Metaphysical Imagery. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1974.

[xvi] I am indebted for this quotation to Daniel Allan Gray’s 1977 dissertation, “Andrew Marvell and Seventeenth-Century Metaphor,” a full citation of which is appended in the bibliography.

[xvii] Rosemond Tuve notes that Ramus’ influence is particularly prominent in Sidney’s verse (she cites sonnet xxvii in Astophil and Stella as an example), and that “one only has to open Sidney” to find evidence of Ramist thought (324).

[xviii] See Paul Hammond’s Marvell’s Pronouns:(Hammond, P. [2003]. “Marvell’s Pronouns.” Essays in Criticism53[3], 219–234.)

[xix] William Empson. Seven Types of Ambiguity. 3rd edition (London: Chatto and Windus, 1963), 133.

[xx] Andrew Marvell. “The Gallery.” In Andrew Marvell: The Complete Poems, 40, l. 9-16.

[xxi] Ibid.

[xxii] Ibid.

[xxiii] Andrew Marvell. “The Coronet.” In Andrew Marvell: The Complete Poems, 54, l. 6-16.

[xxiv] Ibid. l. 6-18.

[xxv] John Carey. “Reversals Transposed.” In Approaches to Marvell: The York Tercentenary Lectures. Edited by C.A. Patrides (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1972).

[xxvi] Christopher Ricks. “Its Own Resemblance.” In Approaches to Marvell: The York Tercentenary Lectures, 109.

[xxvii] Cited in Ricks, 110.

[xxviii] Andrew Marvell. “A Poem upon the Death of His Late Highness the Lord Protector.” In Andrew Marvell: The Complete Poems, 148, l. 1-4.

[xxix] Ibid.

[xxx] “verse, n.”. OED Online. March 2017. Oxford University Press (Accessed December 04, 2021).

[xxxi] Andrew Marvell. “A Poem upon the Death of His Late Highness the Lord Protector.” In Andrew Marvell: The Complete Poems, 150, l. 67-74.

[xxxii] Ibid. l. 228-233.

[xxxiii] Andrew Marvell. “The Loyal Scot.” In Andrew Marvell: The Complete Poems, 183-84, l. 15-20.

[xxxiv] Andrew Marvell. “The Last Instructions to a Painter.” In Andrew Marvell: The Complete Poems, 160, l. 321.

[xxxv] Ibid. l. 585-86.

[xxxvi] Ibid. 727-730

[xxxvii] e.g. “Cease, tempter. None can chain a mind / Whom this sweet chordage cannot bind” (l.43-44).

[xxxviii] Andrew Marvell. “The Last Instructions to a Painter.” In Andrew Marvell: The Complete Poems, 180-81,  l. 890-895.

[xxxix] Andrew Marvell. “The Last Instructions to a Painter.” In Andrew Marvell: The Complete Poems, 180-81,  l. 890-905.

[xl] Andrew Marvell. “Upon Appleton House.” In Andrew Marvell: The Complete Poems, 93, l. 577-78.

Beethoven’s Language of Consolation

Antonie Brentano (née Birkenstock) is a controversial figure in Beethoven studies. Born in Vienna and wife to the Frankfurt-based businessman Franz Brentano, she was for a long time considered the leading candidate for the recipient of the mysterious “immortal beloved” (unsterbliche Geliebte) letter of 1812. She has now, after extensive and controversial research, assumed more-or-less equal status with the other leading candidates, her sister-in-law Bettina Brentano and the countess Josephine Dehm. Whatever the nature of their relationship, however, it is clear that she and Beethoven shared a deep and meaningful connection. In 1811, she wrote to Bettina,

 “Beethoven has become for me one of the dearest of human beings…His whole nature is simple, noble, good-natured, and his tender-heartedness would grace the most delicate woman. It speaks in his favor that few know him, and even fewer understand him. He visits me often, almost daily, and then he plays spontaneously because he has an urgent need to alleviate suffering, and he feels that he is able to do so with his heavenly sounds…That there is such power in music I hadn’t yet known until Beethoven informed me of it.”

This statement is remarkable in several respects: Firstly because it describes Beethoven as “good-natured” and “tender-hearted” (two qualities rarely ascribed to Beethoven by his contemporaries), and secondly because it describes in him not just a desire to evoke and assuage emotion (a desire common to most composers), but an “urgent need to alleviate suffering.” Bettina was frequently ill and depressed during her sojourns in Vienna—her husband was obsessively involved in business, and she hated living in Frankfurt—and often became so despondent that she confined herself to her room. Beethoven, according to an account recorded by Otto Jahn, visited her often during these periods and, “[coming] in, seated himself without any further ado at the piano in her antechamber and improvised; when he had ‘said everything and given solace’ to the sufferer in his own language, he left as he had come, without taking notice of anybody else.”

The poignancy of this account is striking, and reveals, along with the apparent sincerity of Beethoven’s “need to alleviate suffering,” an important facet of the composer and his approach to his art. Beethoven is described not simply a playing for Brentano, but rather as saying things to her “in his own language,” as though music rather than words formed the bedrock of his conscious thought. The significance of this, though less apparent to generations raised on the cliché of music as a “universal language,” is difficult to overstate. Beethoven was the first major composer for whom abstract instrumental music, in his own mind as well as those of his contemporaries, began to take on the qualities of articulate thought and language. Bach, Handel, Mozart, and Haydn, no matter the beauty and profundity of their instrumental music, never thought of it as assimilating to a kind of higher “language” of reason and expression. Music and language could work in partnership with one another, often to marvelous effect, but they were not coterminous modes of thought. For Beethoven, however, the man who habitually referred to himself as a tondichter (tone poet)rather than as a composer, this notion represented, at least in certain currents of his work, a kind of endzweck (ultimate aim or purpose)both for himself and for music in general. Where words fail to reach the exalted sphere of poetry, a poetry that can exhort, exalt, inspire, or in this case alleviate suffering, music can bridge the gap.

Perhaps the most moving account of Beethoven using this “language” of consolation was recorded in 1831 by Felix Mendelssohn. In 1804, Beethoven’s former pupil Dorothea von Ertmann lost her three-year-old son and, in the shock of her grief, found herself unable to weep or mourn his passing. Beethoven was unsure initially how to respond, but, at the urging of Dorothea’s husband, he invited her over to his home and, seating himself at the piano, said to her, “We will now speak to each other in music.” He then proceeded to improvise for more than an hour until, according to another account by Dorothea’s niece, “she began to sob and…her grief found both expression and relief.” “He gave me everything,” she told Mendelssohn, “and in the end even brought me comfort.” As he would later do with Antonie Brentano, Beethoven finished playing and, after giving Dorothea a brief clasp of the hand, left the room without another word. Everything meaningful between them had already been said.

History and literature abound with examples like this of music being using for its consoling or curative effects, from Homer and Plato to Shakespeare and George Herbert. With Beethoven, however, we find a new and prophetic conception of music not just as a balm for melancholia, but as a means of articulating and assuaging unfathomable emotion. Both Antonie and Dorothea were suffering not just from crippling depression, but from a sense of emotional isolation—that is, an inability to bring forth and process, either with themselves or others, feelings that were too deep to be understood. Antonie, unable to express her frustration and unhappiness to her husband and their friends, withdrew to her room and turned those feelings inward. Dorothea, overwhelmed the shock and grief of losing her son, closed herself off from all channels of emotional release. For both of these women Beethoven’s music not only gave voice to their deepest griefs, but seemed to “speak” to them in a language that broke the veil of their isolation, bringing them into communion with a presence or soul that brought out and assuaged their deepest anguish and helped to bring them, in the literal sense of the phrase, back to life.

This is a crucial point, I think, in understanding the peculiarly healing qualities of Beethoven’s music as they have been felt by listeners for almost 250 years. For me, as for countless music-lovers throughout history, Beethoven offers a kind of consolation quite unlike that offered by Bach, Mozart, Schubert, et al. Where Bach offers a kind of spiritualized, Godlike consolation, directing all grief toward hope in the divine, and where Mozart offers a soothing respite from the troubles of the world, Beethoven seems to speak personally to the core of what makes us human, reaching to the deepest places within ourselves to which no one, not even our closest lovers and friends, has access. His music seems to give voice to ideas and emotions beyond the reach of normal thought (this is why late Beethoven is so often described as “profound”), and then, having brought these ineffable feelings to the surface, to offer us a template for articulating, processing, and even transcending them. This is not, of course, a new idea—it is probably as old as Beethoven studies themselves—and what I seek to offer here is not a fresh scholarly examination of its hows and whys. Rather, I wish simply to offer some reflections on the consoling qualities of Beethoven’s musical language as I understand them, and to explore how his particular, poeticizing language of courage and transcendence can help pierce the solitude of our darkest moments and help us carry on.

I. Beethoven and the “Language” of Musical Narrative

To begin, however, we must examine more closely this notion of music as a kind of language. When we speak of Beethoven’s musical language, or indeed of musical language in general, we are making an imperfect analogy between the syntactic/semantic structures of spoken language and those of music. I won’t delve here into the vast body of scholarly literature on the subject, but suffice it to say that the analogy, though very attractive on the surface, turns out not to hold. There is no question that music and language share comparable structures of grammar and syntax—the relationship between a diminished seventh chord and its possible resolutions is just as clear and codified as that between a subject and a verb—but their structures of semantics, the means by which they construct recognizable meaning, are fundamentally different. For one thing, music is not subject to direct translation, the one-to-one transposition of one way of expressing something to another. Music just is, and we can no more translate its formal and expressive elements into the medium of language than we can translate Paradise Lost into a Venetian fresco. For another, the semantics of language are based upon a fixed, clearly delimited vocabulary: In the phrase, “the man jumped off the blue boat,” every speaker of English has a common, if not exactly identical notion of what each word means. Music, however, does not work like this. The particulate elements of a musical phrase—the rhythms, harmonies, and intervallic movements—do not correspond to fixed structures of signification, and the means by which we construe “meaning” from them are not logical or translatable. This does not mean that we cannot broadly agree on the meaning or expressive character of a piece—few listeners would contest that the Cavatina of Beethoven’s Op. 130 quartet is an expression of almost unbearable sadness—but a precise parsing of its constituent parts, as we might do with the phrase, “the man jumped off the blue boat,” is impossible.

The common element that we identify between musical and linguistic semantics, then, is essentially one of narrative. Every sensible phrase in every human language constructs an implicit narrative of agency and causality: There are subjects in the universe which act upon objects and in so doing affect indirect objects. This principle underpins every known human epistemology, and is the basic paradigm upon which logical and rational thought are based. In western music, we experience a similar tendency in the implicit narratives of harmonic and developmental progression: A piece of music (and I should clarify that I’m speaking here of abstract instrumental music) begins with the exposition of a particular theme or idea, subjects this theme to a transformative process of development, and then in logically determined fashion returns to and recapitulates the opening material. In this respect, we can say that a piece of music “narrativizes” an experience of movement through time much as a sentence narrativizes the functions of the observable universe: We feel its progression through abstract space/time as we experience our own movement through the world, beginning with almost limitless potential, passing through an unpredictable process of development, and finally arriving at (we hope) some kind of resolution. This narrative of journeying from beginning to end, of continuous and irreversible “becoming,” is inextricably tied up with our own sense of teleology, and can offer us a consoling sense of consummation and fulfillment even, perhaps especially when our own life journeys seem disjointed and unlikely to come to fruition.

Beethoven was certainly not the first composer to take account of the expressive possibilities of this narrative, but from early in his career he seems to have intuited its patterns of expectation as a means of exploring the deepest passions of human life. To get an idea of how this works, we can take as an example the first movement of the String Quartet Op. 59 no. 3 in C Major. The narrative and developmental outline of this movement appear at first to be relatively straightforward—a chaotic, harmonically uncertain exposition gives way to an expansive C Major Sonata—but Beethoven makes a number of telling and characteristic alterations. The music begins with an evocation of almost total harmonic chaos, echoing the shockingly chromatic opening of Mozart’s “Dissonant” String Quartet K. 465. We lurch into life on a diminished seventh chord, and then slide uneasily into neighboring, equally dissonant harmonies through half and whole steps. Occasionally one of the instruments makes a trilling, quasi-cadential gesture, groping towards some kind of recognizable melody, but these attempts come to nothing and the music trails off on yet another diminished seventh chord.

Then suddenly, as if with a blink and a shake of the head, the music rights itself through an up-beat bounce into Allegro Vivace, and the first violin begins a searching, harmonically ambiguous melody that sounds major-ish but can’t seem to make up its mind. After a repeat of this passage in bars 36-40, the music at last finds its feet and, following a crescendo on an open cadence, explodes into rollicking C Major.

The shadows of the opening seem to be well and truly banished, and the music romps along with a brio and gaiety rarely heard in Beethoven’s chamber works. A funny thing, though, happens when we reach the exposition repeat in bars 107-110. Instead of transitioning into a direct repeat of the long-sought C Major melody, the music returns to the searching violin passage of bars 31-40. We soon realize that Beethoven has not begun the Sonata Form with the melody itself, but from the searching violin passage that leads up to it. From this unexpected twist in the anticipated Sonata structure, we do return to the C Major material of the exposition proper, but the chaos-to-order narrative implied by the opening’s homage to Mozart been subtly undermined. Where in Mozart’s quartet the music effortlessly transitions, as if with a simple change of perspective, from gnarly dissonance to cloudless C Major, here Beethoven foregrounds the tortuous, often labored process that must be gone through for music (or, we might say, a human consciousness) to work itself out of chaos and into clarity.

As if to reinforce this point, Beethoven plays a similar trick with the movement’s recapitulation. At what would seem to be the terminal point of the development beginning in bar 150, when the music has arrived at the remote key of D Flat Major, Beethoven, instead of launching into a recapitulation of the C Major theme, returns again to a variation of the violin melody of bars 31-40. From this unanticipated repetition, accompanied this time by diminished chords in the second violin, viola, and cello, we work our way back to the melody and a C Major conclusion, but we are left again with the impression that it is not so much the melody itself that is the “theme” of the piece, but rather the journey that must be gone through to get there. The music, after having so arduously worked its way into a sense of clarity and intention and gotten lost again in ambiguity, must work again to pull itself out.

The narrative and expressive elements in play here, even if difficult to justify in technical terms, are easy enough to identify. Beethoven is deliberately manipulating the narrative of the musical dialectic (the natural progression of tones through different chordal configurations toward resolution) to mirror a particular kind of movement within human consciousness: When we find ourselves caught in the grip of anxiety, uncertainty, or despair, it is rarely enough that we simply change our perspective or force ourselves to “look on the bright side.” Rather, we are often forced to consciously think or will ourselves into a more positive state of mind. This narrative is decidedly more complex than that evoked by a normal minor-to-major transition, and Beethoven’s handling of it represents a path-breaking fusion of the language of music with the language of thought. Abstract instrumental music, simply through the way it evolves according to the syntax of musical development, is able to evoke in the mind of the listener a clearly defined narrative that she can analogize to her own life. She is not simply listening to the music as it unfolds before her, but rather feeling the music as it limns the contours of her own thought. When the music works its way out of chaos and into resolution, therefore, she experiences a kind of vicarious relief, a sense that she has undergone the same journey of overcomingas the music.

I would identify this dovetailing of musical and rational syntax as the base ingredient of Beethoven’s language of consolation. All of his works that, in my estimation, offer the greatest solace have at their foundation some version of this abstract yet instantly recognizable narrative—darkness and discord are resolved, through a deliberate process of development, into triumph or transcendence. This is not to say that Beethoven always adheres to this narrative without altering it—one of the great joys of getting to know Beethoven is learning to hear his subtle subversions of listener expectations—but if we wish to understand the peculiarly consoling effects of his music, we need to recognize that it is this syntax of technical and narrative progression that underlies, in one way or another, all of his efforts to both articulate feelings of suffering  and explore the ways we as human beings can overcome them.

II. Music becomes Words becomes Music

We have, then, a solid basis for understanding how Beethoven’s musical language plays upon our sense of narrative to create meaning and consolation. The innate syntactic patterns of music assimilate to those of thought, and we are able to experience their progressive, end-directed “stories” as positive analogues of our own experience. If we know Beethoven, however, we note that it is not simply toward the abstract structures of language that his music tends in search of consolation, but sometimes towards the actual words themselves. At many moments in his late works, when the music has run up against a moment of profound sorrow or uncertainty, it seems to strain toward a literal syntax of poetic utterance—as though words are trying to burst out of the music. This is what Richard Wagner referred to when he declared Beethoven to be the prophet of his gesamptkunstwerk, a fusion of all the arts into one, and what Beethoven himself attempted to do (with mixed results) in the Ninth Symphony. What is interesting, however, is that we know not only that Beethoven was dissatisfied the choral finale of the Ninth—he told composer Carl Czerny that he had decided to replace it with a purely instrumental one—but that virtually all other appearances of this “vocal impulse” lead to a kind of repudiation of it, musical abstraction wiping out linguistic specificity. Beethoven may seem to be groping toward a kind of poetic, all-comprehending “statement” to console himself and the listener, but in each instance his efforts come up short and pure music (later generations would call it absolute music) is brought in to fill the breach. As a first example of this, we can turn to the third movement of the Piano Sonata Op. 110 in A Flat Major. The beginning of this movement, which emerges out of the second movement’s variations on two German folk songs, is a desolate arioso in B Flat Minor.  A songful opening gives way in three bars to a piu adagio (even slower) passage marked recitativo. This is an unusual indication to give in a piano sonata, to be sure, but what follows is all but unprecedented. After a rolling, lyrical passage that does seem to evoke dramatic recitative, time seems to stand still as, over a sustained chord in the left hand, the right hand plays a solitary A Natural, a note totally foreign to the key of B Flat Minor. It then, over an anguished two-bar crescendo and decrescendo, proceeds to repeat this note twenty-seven times, rising and falling like a supplicating cry.

There is no melody to speak of here, at least not in any terms that musicians of the early 19th century would have understood. The music is driven forward by nothing but a solitary note, a note struck again and again as if the voice of bar four has reached the end of what he can say even as he desperately strains to express something beyond it. Somehow this A natural manages to instigate a key-change in bar five, causing the left hand to switch to a dominant E Major chord, but even then the right hand’s progress is stymied and finally, in a plaintive, sighing cantabile, it leads the music back to the B Flat Minor of the movement’s opening.

What are we to make of this? What can Beethoven possibly have meant by such a blatantly rhetorical, even unmusical gesture? There is, of course, no objective response (notwithstanding the legions of critics and commentators who have attempted to find one), but I believe that something of an answer is furnished by Beethoven in the remainder of the movement. The adagio which follows the return to B Flat Minor in bar 7 is one of deep sorrow—Beethoven marks it klagender gesang, or mournful song—and in bars 25-27 the music seems to die away on a three-octave, pianissimo repetition of A Flat:

From this emotional nadir, this apparent dying and abandonment of hope, comes something unexpected. The treble A Flat of bars 25-27 returns, this time unaccompanied, and begins tracing a stepwise pianissimo theme in A Flat Major. In bar 32 a second voice enters a third above, beginning on E Flat rather than an A Flat, and we realize that Beethoven has devised an upward-tending fugue –the structure of the opening line even resembles ascending stairs—to lift us out of the depths and bring us, as he inscribed over the manuscript, “back to life.” This fugue builds in strength and confidence over the following pages, and even though we experience a shattering relapse into B Flat Minor despair in bars 113-135, the fugue returns again (this time in inverted form) to bring the music to rest in A Flat.

Where words appeared to so agonizingly fail the composer in bars 4-7, music—and it is important to emphasize here that, for Beethoven, fugal counterpoint represented music in its purest, most sacred form—steps in to fill the void. The inexpressible despair adumbrated in the A Natural recitative has been at once articulated and reconciled (first by the despairing arioso that follows it, and then by the life-giving fugue), and pure poetry, a poetry beyond all words, bring us to a consoling resolution.

We witness something similar in the fourth movement of the string quartet Op. 132. Here Beethoven brings us abruptly back to Earth from the sublimities of the third movement Heiliger Dankgesang with a jovial march in A Major, and seems to challenge both himself and the listener to imagine where, after such profound emotion, the music can possibly go. In bar 25, however, this march breaks off and, over sustained tremolos in the second violin, viola, and cello, the first violin launches into an unmistakable passage of recitative.

Music again, after touching upon such exalted planes of human feeling, seems to grope its way toward a direct statement to make sense both of where it has been and how it can move forward. However, instead of reaching what we might call “the limits of what can be said” by coming to ground on a single note like the Opus 110, this passage seems to race clear of language by becoming faster and faster until the recitativo becomes literally unsingable. From there, and after a pregnant pause on a smorzando (dying away) E natural, Beethoven launches into one of the most beautiful, most thoroughly musical movements he ever composed, an Allegro Appassionato that sweeps its listeners up in what T.S. Eliot called “a kind of heavenly, or at least more than human gaiety.”

This movement, which seems to enfold everything that came before, from purest joy to darkest despair, into a transcendent song without words, reaches a level of poeticism that, with the greatest respect to Mr. Eliot, defies description. Its expressive character is utterly overwhelming, and yet words, be they the implied words of the recitative or the adjectives normally used to describe a piece of music, seem laughably inadequate to contain it. It is as though pure song, a song that encompasses and transcends all the possibilities of thought and language, breaks through the ambiguity of the recitative and, with a truly miraculous key change in its final bars, carries us to a joyous conclusion.

As a final example of this, here is what Beethoven does with the most famous music-becomes-words-becomes-music moment in his entire oeuvre (with the exception of the Ninth Symphony): The “Muss es sein? Es muss sein” opening of the fourth movement of the String Quartet Op. 135. The beginning of this movement emerges out of one of the long-breathed, spiritual adagios that mark Beethoven’s late music, and we are again faced with the question of where, after such profundity and emotion, the music can possibly go. The movement begins with a hushed three-note motif in the viola and cello marked in the manuscript with the words, “Muss es sein?” (Must it be?). An uneasy melodic noodling in the violins and viola seems to try to divert the music from this terrifying question, but it returns in bar 3 and, after one more attempted diversion all four voices break out in a forte response on the phrase, “Es muss sein!” (“It must be!”).

Again and again this question returns over the following five measures, and again and again this intractable response returns, building to a shattering fortissimo in bar nine and then fading away on a held pianissimo in bar 12.

Music has again become words for Beethoven, literal words this time, and these words have again led him to a time-stopping impasse on a fermata. Language, even here in its starkest, most elemental form (just try to fathom all of the semantic possibilities inherent in the phrase “Must it be?”) is found inapt to the expressive demands of a question that troubled Beethoven all his life,  and it is again up to music to furnish a response.

Beethoven’s response here, in his last completed work, is perhaps his most remarkable of all. Taking the question and answer motif of bars 1-12, he launches into an upbeat F Major allegro that, in spite of being set in duple meter, continually foregrounds the three-note figures evoking both Muss es sein? and Es muss sein. Question and answer seem to become caught up in a kind of comic shrug, the composer cheekily turning the unanswerability of fate into an answer in itself.

As in the final movement of Op. 110, this revelation comes to ground disturbingly in bars 166-178, the viola and cello insistently repeating the “muss es sein? “ motif while being shouted down by the violins. But once again this reemergence of what we might call the language of uncertainty and despair is transmuted into a kind of “what-are-you-going-to-do?” insouciance, and the quartet, after a positively cheeky pizzicato interlude, comes to an untroubled F Major conclusion. For the last time in his musical career, then, Beethoven allows the symbolic language of music to run up against the literal language of poetry, and for the last time he allows the language of music to pass through and beyond it, finding meaning that language alone cannot articulate. To paraphrase a later philosopher, for Beethoven it is finally not a case of “thereof we cannot speak, thereof we must be silent,” but rather “thereof we cannot speak, thereof we must sing.”

III. Apotheosis: The Opus 130 Quartet and the Grosse Fuge

We come then, to the heart of the matter. How do these different currents that we have observed in Beethoven’s musical language— the creating of a symbolic narrative syntax through musical progression and the assimilating of music to a beyond-words language of expression —come together to make it such a potent force of healing and consolation? How, beyond practical questions of technique and narrative interpretation, does the language of his music speak so directly to our deepest sorrows and bring them to some kind of reconciliation?  In answer to this, I would like to take an extended look at the Op. 130 quartet. This work unifies what I’ve identified as the primary elements of Beethoven’s language of consolation and presents perhaps the composer’s compelling portrait of grief (or struggle, adversity, etc) overcome. This is not to say that it is objectively and in itself the most “consoling” (such a judgment is inevitably subjective and up to the taste of the individual listener), but as a paradigm of Beethoven’s technical and expressive “working out” of negative emotion it is unparalleled.

The quartet begins with an expansive Sonata movement in B Flat Major. A stately contrapuntal opening, its melody figured around the kind of hairpin chromatic turns that pervade Beethoven’s late music, sets a mood of gravity and seriousness (Beethoven himself called this movement “a serious and heavy-going introduction.”) A passage of chromatic wandering brings us to a tonic cadence, and the cello leads the other voices in a G Flat Major fugue. After only 15 bars of this fugue, however, the music comes to ground on a fermata and then takes off in a racing allegro.

The rhythmic and expressive character of the music has been entirely changed in half a bar. Adagio has become allegro, legato has become non ligato, and solemn and stately has become busy unto frenetic. This transformation, as dramatic as it is abrupt, lasts only six bars, however, and we then return to legato-adagio material of the movement’s opening.

From the very first bars of the quartet, then, a principle of extreme stylistic contrast has been established as the music’s primary motivator. Sonata form is essentially a narrative of contrasts developed and brought together, and this long movement, with its vertiginous shifts in style and mood, seems to set the juxtaposition of radically disparate styles and moods as its paradigm of development. What makes this paradigm interesting, however, and what sets it apart from those in Beethoven’s other Sonata movements, is the prominence it accords to juxtaposition without ever trying to resolve it. Where most Sonata movements frame the integration of contrasting themes into a harmonious whole, here Beethoven seems to deliberately frustrate this tendency. In spite of this movement’s length and conventional Sonata structure (Beethoven even includes a full exposition repeat) it is a sense of disunity that ultimately prevails. The tensions normally reconciled by Sonata form’s progressive, end-directed structure remain unresolved, and the search for unity is projected forward toward the remaining movements.

 The following four movements do little to alleviate these tensions. The second movement begins abruptly, as though in mid-sentence, and juxtaposes an astonishingly modern-sounding B Flat Minor scherzo with a frenzied B Flat Major dance. The third movement, subtitled poco scherzoso (a little jokingly), cheerfully upends the seriousness that has thus far defined the quartet. The fourth movement, a soaring alla tedesca (German dance) in G Major, takes this cheerfulness even further and wrenches us away from the prevailing B Flat Major/Minor tonality of the preceding movements. The fifth movement Cavatina, in the starkest contrast of all, plunges us from this lightness into almost unbearable sadness, singing a song of endless heartbreak.

We need to linger for a moment on this movement. We do not generally know how Beethoven responded emotionally to his own work, but we have testament from violinist Karl Holz that this movement had a special significance for him. ”He told me he wrote it with tears in his eyes and that nothing he had ever written had a greater effect on him…Even the mere memory of it was enough to bring him to tears.” If we accept Holz on this, this movement would seem to represent one of the few times in Beethoven’s oeuvre when his own sadness, a sadness in no way performative or assumed, finds its way into his music. Maynard Solomon remarks that Beethoven, in both his life and his work, usually adopted a stoical response to suffering, and most of his predominantly “sad” music is tempered either by a sense of resolve (as in, for example, the funeral march of the Eroica symphony) or one of personal remove. Here, however, a pure, hopeless sadness seems to come straight from the composer’s heart, a lifetime’s sorrow poured out in a long, tragic aria.

This movement is very conventional on the surface—a melody in the first violin is accompanied by the other voices and follows an ABA structure—and yet it packs an emotional punch so intense that many writers on Beethoven (including this one) shrink from trying to describe it. It is another of the composer’s unforgettable songs without words, and in imitating the structure of a tragic aria he seems not only to be passing the limits of what can be said (as he did in the discussed in part 2) but the limits of what can be felt. In the movement’s B section, as the second violin, viola, and cello play a hushed, triplet-figure accompaniment, the first violin seems to dissolve into breathless sobs, trying but unable to hold together its new melody in C Flat Major.

It is not only words that are inadequate to describe this suffering, but music too. The beyond-words transcendence that Beethoven finds in the Op. 110 sonata, the Op. 132 quartet, and the Op. 135 quartet is unequal to the agony of this moment, and all the violin can do is grope pathetically at an unrealizable melody. The music does finally work its way into a recapitulation of the A section, but the memory of that fathomless sorrow remains, hanging like a shadow over all that must come after.

At this moment in the quartet, then, we see Beethoven faced with two enormous challenges if he is to bring the music to a conclusion. He must find a way of unifying the extreme technical and stylistic diversity of the first five moments, and he must provide a consoling response to the emotion of the Cavatina. Literal and symbolic “language,” having failed him in providing technical/narrative coherence to the quartet and expressing the sadness of its penultimate movement, must find a new expression that unifies and transcends them both.  Consolation, the final affective aim of perhaps Beethoven’s most troubled and emotionally fraught work, must be found not only in the resolution of chaos into order, but in the assuaging of a pain so deep that it cannot be articulated.

The answer Beethoven finds is the grosse fuge. I’m tempted to simply post a Youtube link to this movement and leave it at that (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Nys-CUQQS8E), but some words of explanation are necessary. The grosse fuge is a fifteen-minute double-fugue that is so dense, complex, and emotionally intense that Igor Stravinsky (who was never a great fan of Beethoven) called it “the most perfect miracle in all music.” It pushes the capacities of players, listeners, and even the composer himself to the absolute limit, and sounds like nothing so much as the creation (or destruction) of an entire universe. Indeed, in the way this movement evokes the cosmic shaping of chaos into sublime order, we are put in mind of the creation as evoked by John Milton:

Silence, ye troubl’d waves, and thou Deep, peace,
Said then th’ Omnific Word, your discord end:

Nor staid, but on the Wings of Cherubim
Uplifted, in Paternal Glorie rode
Farr into Chaos, and the World unborn; 
For Chaos heard his voice: him all his Traine
Follow’d in bright procession to behold
Creation, and the wonders of his might.

There is, alas, nowhere near enough room in this essay for me to explain how all thisworks from a technical perspective, nor is there a satisfactorily objective way of describing the grosse fuge’s narrative and expressive impact. In entirely subjective terms, then, for me the grosse fuge represents two things: It is the composer’s ultimate expression of will and his greatest moment of spiritual transcendence. Beethoven believed all his life that his will was strong enough to overcome any adversity, and here this will is brought audibly to bear as nowhere else in his oeuvre. The contrapuntal techniques employed throughout the grosse fuge are so abstruse that one has the impression of Beethoven deliberately setting himself the most absurd challenges just so he can overcome them. As if a 15-minute fugue isn’t enough, Beethoven turns it into a double fugue. As if a 15-minute double fugue isn’t enough, Beethoven bases the fugues on two different meters. As if a 15-minute double-fugue with cross-rhythms isn’t enough, Beethoven throws in every contrapuntal device he can think of. And as if all this isn’t enough, Beethoven maps the different “movements” of the fugue (yes, there are separate movements) to the technical and thematic character of the other movements of the quartet, symbolically reconciling the diversity of the rest of the music. 

That this expression of will is a kind of apotheosis of that exerted in the first movement of Op. 59 no. 3 is, I hope, obvious. Beethoven is giving an ultimate demonstration of how chaos and despair can, by a determined mind, be wrested not only under control, but into a coherent and satisfying form. What is perhaps less obvious, but is for our purposes more significant, is the way this movement effects the kind of beyond-words transcendence we saw in the works in part 2. The Cavatina, which seems to yearn so desperately for a language to express its suffering, comes to ground like so many of Beethoven’s attempts to bring words out of music. Only this time the despair is so deep, the suffering so intense that the transcendence must somehow match unfathomable despair with illimitable grace.  Amazingly though, when the grosse fuge explodes into life on a unison G (the same tonic pitch that closes the Cavatina) and proceeds to construct such an awe-inspiring edifice on top of it, we do have the sense that this is what is happening. When we reach the end of the movement, having been brought up against such otherworldly beauty and sublimity (we recall that Beethoven thought fugal counterpoint to be music’s most spiritual form), we are left with a feeling of peace and resolution that defies description. In the words of John Gillespie Magee, we have “slipped the sultry bonds of earth, / …And, while with silent lifting mind [we’ve] trod / The high untrespassed sanctity of space, / Put out [our hands], and touched the face of God.

IV. Coda

We know a good deal about Beethoven’s interior life, much more than we would have any right to expect. His conversation books, his soul-baring documents like the Heiligenstadt Testament, and his voluminous correspondence give us remarkable insight into what he thought and felt throughout his relatively long life. What we don’t know, what we can’t know, is the degree to which the emotional and physical agonies described in these documents afflicted him on a daily basis. Just to review, this was a man who suffered from chronic, agonizing digestive troubles that frequently left him bedridden. He was prone to fevers and migraines that would last for months. He struggled with what looks to have been functional alcohol dependency. He lost his mother at the age of 16, was brutally abused by his alcoholic father, and had to take responsibility for his family at the age of 18. He longed his whole life for a loving relationship, but never anything experienced anything other than heartbreak. He adopted his nephew, endured a vicious, years-long legal battle for his custody, only for that nephew try to commit suicide to spite him. And, lest we forget, he went deaf. The man who gave humanity some of the most glorious music ever written was denied, in the ultimate irony, the chance to appreciate it himself.

It seems impossible that any human can have suffered so much. That Beethoven lived for 56 years without succumbing to temptation of suicide is in itself remarkable. The fact that he survived while creating some of the most extraordinary beauties our species has ever produced is little short of miraculous. The idea of Beethoven at 56, stone deaf, alcoholic, and in constant mental and physical pain finding it within himself to compose the Op. 130 quartet borders on the incredible. In fact, as with so much of what Beethoven did and composed, we would never believe it if we didn’t have the evidence before us.

We have to think then, in considering the extraordinary powers of his music to console, that the person who was finally the most consoled by it was the composer himself. Beethoven must have found in his art not just the self-forgetting thrill of creation or the vicarious sense of trouble overcome, but the assuaging presence of something that helped him bear the burden of his suffering. When people talk about the “spirituality” of Beethoven’s late music, this is what I think they’re getting at. The essence of consolation, according to Dutch theologian Henri Nouwen, is not simply the alleviation of suffering, but rather the presence of someone who can say to us, “You are not alone, I am with you. Together we can carry the burden.” For most, it is the presence of the composer himself that brings them this consolation, the sense that Beethoven speaks to and stands with them during times of trial. For me, though (and here I will alienate skeptical readers of this essay) there is more to it. That Beethoven himself must have been consoled in this way suggests that it was not just an inward, self-communing presence that solaced his final years, but rather the felt presence of something above and beyond him. God, though he spoke so gloriously through Bach and Mozart, seems to me to have spoken with Beethoven, giving him the language, a language at once sublime and profoundly human, to assure himself and us that even in our darkest moments we never have to bear the burden alone.

Aspects of Proustian Memory and Narrativity in Brahms’s Op. 51 Quartets

“A poet who alludes creatively is not a passive copyist, and a poetic whole may take up within itself a consciousness of echoes.” – Christopher Ricks[i]

Brahms’s Op. 54 Schicksalslied contains a striking gesture of literary revisionism. The text of this 1868 work, taken from Hölderlin’s Hyperion, is effectively a one-note elegy reflecting on the irremediability of the Gotter/Menschen divide (“You walk in the light, / Weightless tread on a soft floor, blessed genii…But we are fated / To find no foothold, no rest”[ii]), but Brahms, after following Hölderlin to the end of his final despairing stanza, effects a significant change in its emotional conclusion. The music, having at first illustrated the Glänzende Götterlüfte (“radiant gods’ mild breezes”) of the heavenly realm, and then the despair of the “suffering mortals” doomed to be at its remove, suddenly, and without any kind of implicit prompting from the text, recapitulates the music of the Götterlüfte opening, transposing its original shadowed E-Flat into a pellucid C. It then, shorn of much of the Moll-dur duskiness that shadowed the exposition, finds its way in 29 bars to a resolution on a root-position C Major chord—resolving, as it were, Hölderlin’s last convulsion of despair into an upward-looking glance of hope. The narrative effect of this revision, which we must owe entirely to Brahms’s own personality and ingenuity, is difficult to describe, but we might say, obliquely following Heidegger’s identification in Hölderlin of “commemorative thinking,[iii]” that it is an effect of creative memory. By adverting to the unreachable sublimities of the past, symbolically speaking, Brahms seems able to resolve the work’s almost oppressive anxiety and discordance into an allusive but individualized conclusion, turning a memory of unattainable perfection into a path toward fresh stylistic/semantic discovery. It is as if, we might say, by accepting and even incorporating the influence of the distant Himmlischen upon his creative thinking, Brahms is able to ameliorate the anxiety of his removal from them, and in so doing to find a new way forward for himself.

It would, of course, be spurious to read too much into the biographical implications here, but taken in the context of Brahms’s lifelong struggle with his musical forebears, it is easy to see how he might have found this interpretation to be personally resonant. Brahms’s lifelong agonies over his place in musical history have been exhaustively documented, not least by the composer himself, and his endless and (as he saw them) fruitless strivings after the sublimities of Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven—those godlike beings blühet ewig, as Hölderlin’s says, in their inspiration—ingrained in him a deep sense of futility, a despair that all that was truly great in music had already been written. (“Really, I don’t know where [modern] music is coming from,” he later said to the composer Richard Heuberger. “It seems to me it will completely stop!”[iv]) Coming between[v] the composition of his first published string quartets, Op. 51, and his first symphony, Op. 68, the two genres in which Beethoven was unequivocally dominant, it may be that the Schicksalslied was conceived at a time when his consciousness of legacy and memory was particularly acute, and his desire to assimilate and overcome them correspondingly more intense. We might well see the end of the Schicksalslied, therefore, as a metaphor for this process of assimilation—a symbolic musical agon whereby Brahms, to escape the tyranny of memory, turns a retrospect of the past into a prospect for the future.

This is speculation, naturally, but it does offer (potentially) interesting insight into the mind of a composer coming to terms with the magnitude of his musical heritage, and with it the commensurate expectations of himself. In his 2014 book Schubert’s Beethoven Project, which I have taken here as a kind of springboard, John M. Gingerich describes a similar period of anxious individuation in Schubert’s life (his “Jahre der Krise” [years of crisis] of 1818-1823) wherein his “fledgling, exploratory” early works, all composed under a young man’s anxiety of influence, gave way to “mature work, conceived with an acute awareness of his inheritance as well as his legacy.[vi]” The stimulus for this transition, in Gingerich’s analysis, was Schubert’s assimilation of Beethoven (particularly the Beethoven of the symphonies, quartets, and piano sonatas) into an individualized matrix of style and idea, one which enabled him to figure his habitual, lied-like melodies within conventional structures and to enact a new conception of narrative form:

“Schubert wished to tell a different kind of story for an age and a generation for whom narratives ending in heroic climax had acquired a sour taste. More than twenty years before Beethoven’s heroic style became institutionalized, Schubert found in the sonata form he inherited, with its built-in cycles and redundancies, a vehicle well-suited to the expression of a new experience of time and memory.”[vii]

Obviously, the context of Schubert’s agonistic strivings with/against Beethoven’s example was very different from Brahms’s—Schubert had to contend, after all, with Beethoven in his own lifetime—but when we consider the structural/conceptual commonalities of the works from these periods, a comparison of their Beethoven “projects” seems highly apposite. Brahms too sought to figure a personal style and sensibility within an idiom defined by Beethoven’s influence, furthering its formal and expressive potentiality. Brahms too, in confronting Beethoven in his most dominant genres (with the exception of the piano sonata), sought to finally exorcise an inhibition of his creative growth. Brahms too, overwhelmed by the weight of his musical inheritance, developed a cyclic, highly allusive style that, playing upon his auditors’ sense of memory and association, individuated Sonata form(s) to his own ends. One could go on.

There is, of course, an entire library of criticism dedicated to explicating these and other aspects of Brahms’s formal and stylistic integration of Beethoven, with an additional library comparing them with those of Schubert. But what I find particularly interesting, and which has hitherto been largely undiscussed, is the extent to which Schubert’s reinvention of Sonata’s “experience of time and memory” can also be said to reflect Brahms’s own efforts to accommodate Beethoven’s influence, particularly as regards his use of allusion and memory as musical devices. Schubert—as Gingerich, Frisch, and others have demonstrated—frequently enacts in his late music a striking individuation of musical-narrative grammar in which “memories” of Beethovenian style are figured within gestures of innovation, many of them mapping development to cycles of repetition and self-reference. The effect therefore is often of a style whose very gestalt is articulated around a consciousness of recollection, where the implied “narrative” itself is an attempt to assimilate obsessive memory. Gingerich analogizes this to the narrative of time lost and recaptured (retrouvé) in Proust’s A la recherche du temps perdu, and we do not need to look far to see how this structural/stylistic paradigm illuminates Brahms’s own “Beethoven project.” The works of the Schicksalslied period, particularly those in the Beethovenian genres, often enact complex structures of allusion that enable Brahms to individuate with and against the remembrance of music past—even employing, and much more than Schubert, direct references to Beethoven’s works—and seem to frame their own narratives as dialectical recollections/absorptions of Beethoven’s legacy. (We might think of the obvious, but by no means unambiguous invocation of the An die Freude in the last movement of Brahms’s first symphony). These narratives, a word I use for want of a better one, frequently allow Brahms to open his music up to a consciousness of its inheritance (ameliorating, we might say, an anxiety of unconscious influence), and to subtly transmute, like Proust’s narrator, moments of recollection into fresh semantic/stylistic possibility—assimilating, as it were, memory to potentiality. Gingerich’s analogy has its limitations in this respect, as I will show, but its fundamental principle, situating musical narrativity within a “Proustian” literary model of allusion, does free a discussion of influence/reference from its usual, restrictive dialectics (irony vs. sincerity, subversion vs. homage, etc.) and can helpfully reframe our understanding of referentiality within some of Brahms’s most allusive works. This is what, with reference to the op. 51 quartets, I shall propose to do in this essay.

To begin with, however, we must look more closely at this Proustian analogy itself. Gingerich’s striking formulation, which is given remarkably short shrift in his otherwise superb book, is used by him to articulate both the character of Schubert’s music (“The nexus of memory, solitude, self-awareness and landscape furnishes the interior drama of the two Müller cycles and of the Heine cycle, and is…redolent of a Proustian psychology”[viii]) and its unique structural/associative topology:

“The simple opening of Schubert’s quartet [String Quartet no. 13 in A Minor] functions…a bit like Proust’s childish madeleine: it holds the germ of memory. It serves as a talisman of memory to which the rest of the piece will have free access…Through a cycle of return and departure, of reiteration and comment, each successive phrase of the melody seems to comment upon or reply to the whole of the proceeding music. Later (most obviously in the retransition) he returns to the accompanying strands, presenting them in defamiliarized contexts that isolate and reveal their latent qualities…Instead of questing forward like the protagonist of a Bildungsroman from his callow beginning until he achieves maturity, Schubert’s movement circles back to touch the talisman of memory, and seems to spread out from it in all directions.[ix]

Put more simply, for Gingerich, Schubert’s constantly recursive, even repetitious style of development is “Proustian” in the way it seems constantly to reassess itself, to circle back rather than proceed on a straight Beethovenian trajectory.[x] It will often establish a basic set of textures or motives at the beginning of a movement, like those in the opening bars of the A Minor quartet, and then return to them basically unchanged throughout, even after their constitutive elements have been broken off and developed individually (Gingerich analogizes this experience to “gaz[ing] again upon a family portrait having acquired intimate knowledge of the individual personalities”[xi]). All of Schubert’s elaborative developments, in other words, are assimilated through moments of Proustian recollection into a recursive whole, and seem to map the music to two timescales, one which is constantly moving forward, and another which can at any time expand to comprehend all which comes before and after.[xii] Thus, with every allusion to the melodic/textural material in the opening bars of the A Minor quartet, we are brought into a dual-consciousness of time, one which integrates all development into a web of motivic association and reframes it (the material) as the work’s impression point—the Eindruckspunkt, in Wilhelm Dilthey’s formulation, around which the entire musical gestalt is articulated.[xiii]

Example 1 Schubert D. 804 mvt. 1 mm. 1-11, the beginning of what Gingerich calls Schubert’s musical “madeleine” in the A Minor quartet.

This principle is impossible to elucidate more clearly without extensive use of musical examples—many of which Gingerich, to his credit, provides—but suffice it to say that, technically speaking, Gingerich’s Proustian analogy is a very innovative re-framing of things that have long been understood about Schubert’s music: It operates cyclically rather than unidirectionally, it plays upon repetition and an implicit desire for return, and it frames development as an (often thwarted) journey of homecoming. Walter Frisch articulates essentially these same principles in his 2000 essay “’You Must Remember This’: Memory and Structure in Schubert’s String Quartet in G Major D. 887,”[xiv] which is one of Gingerich’s primary points of reference, and John Daverio, in analyzing the self-reflexive structures of Schubert’s D. 935 impromptus, even invokes Proust’s memoire involuntaire as a metaphor for Schubert’s reflexively “suffusing the present with an aura of pastness.”[xv] It is not the what, therefore, of Schubert’s developmental procedures that Gingerich’s analogy particularly illuminates—what technical and formal elements underpin their often recursive structure—but rather the how, how Schubert’s cycles of allusion and association play upon our sense of memory to create narrative and “meaning”:

“The highly discursive multi-layered field of memory, the interplay between many short sections of various degrees of reality and varying temporal modalities, the circling trajectory, the sudden transitions created by a vividly remembered sensory detail…In Schubert’s work, as in Proust’s, memory seems to rove freely, all the while a master is cunningly weaving his story.”[xvi]

This is all very well, and as a surface-level metaphor it describes the uncanny, echoic qualities of Schubert’s music very effectively. Schubert’s greatest works do often seem to evoke narratives of time—or love, or joy, or beauty, etc.—lost and then, if not exactly “recaptured,” at least obsessively recalled, often with a tincture of poignancy and regret. (As examples, we might think of the Quartettsatz, D. 703, in which a singing D-flat major melody is recalled from an ever-present C-minor void threatening to engulf it, or the first movement of the D. 960 Piano Sonata, in which the harmonic/melodic peregrinations of the development seem motivated by a desire to recapture the serenity of the opening bars.) They also seem to use this roving structure as a way of individuating musical forms very much determined by Beethovenian expectations, whereby the linear, developmental narratives of Beethoven’s Sonata form(s)—Gingerich cites the repeatless first movement of the Op. 59 no. 1 quartet as a prime example—give way to discrete, semi-imbricated cycles of textural/melodic variation. Unfortunately, as with most surface-level metaphors, the efficacy of these comparisons is ultimately limited, for they depend on very reductive readings of their subjects. Schubert’s “Proustian” effects, for instance, are often equally perceptible as end-directed, Sonata-form gestures of development and recapitulation, and Proust’s ranging style of allusive narrativity, which is the keystone of Gingerich’s thesis, is never as purely integrative as his reading assumes. On this point, here is Malcolm Bowie, one of Proust’s greatest Anglophone critics, in Proust Among the Stars:

“The peculiar ingenuity of [Proust’s] syntax is that it brings together into one continuous pattern a continuous forward-flung intention and a simultaneous host of retrospective or sideways vistas. It seeks stability and finality, celebrates these qualities with its emphatic final cadences, yet leaves the door open too. Riddles remain to be solved, curiosity to be satisfied, and a larger narrative syntax to be pursued. A balance must be kept between completion and necessary provisionality.”[xvii]

The very fabric of Proust’s narrative is based on the notion that meaning emerges from a proliferating web of memory and possibility, one in which, as his narrator says, “life is perpetually weaving fresh threads which link one individual and one event to another…so that between any slightest point of our past and all the others a rich network of memories gives us an almost infinite variety of communicating paths to choose from.”[xviii] To be sure, Gingerich’s enclosed analogy of “gaz[ing] again upon a family portrait having acquired intimate knowledge of the individual personalities” aligns rather badly with this vision of ramifying potential and connectivity, and we might say that, on a semantic level, it is here that it stands most in need of expansion. A true Proustian musicality, if that is what we wish to call it, would not just comprehend a cyclic, memory-oriented narrative, as Gingerich’s ultimately does; rather, it would situate this narrative within a shimmer of ambivalence, a sense that meaning is constantly unfolding within a provisional, ever-ramifying web of signification.

I do not wish to put too fine a point on this, not least because Gingerich seems fully aware of his analogy’s limitations,[xix] but it seems to me that it is his very (mis)reading of Proustian narrativity that leaves it open to revealing exploration, for it opens the door (if only implicitly) to a musical style that does effect this synthesis of memory and semantic potentiality. Schubert’s cyclic, self-reflexive structures may be too end-directed and univocal to be helpfully described as Proustian (to say nothing of too slight, typically confined to a single movement), but the notion of a style articulated around allusive memory and provisional signification proves remarkably well-suited to describing Brahms. Not only does Brahms’s practice of “developing variation” align much more closely with the structural aspects of Gingerich’s theory (in a piece like op. 51 no. 1, for instance, all of the development is effectively articulated around the “memory” of the opening motifs), but his use of multivalent allusions to himself and to other composers—moments of recall that assimilate fixed intentionality to a fluctuant, provisional structure of ”meaning”—seems to enact something like the “play” between memory and potentiality we see in Proust’s narrative syntax. (Proustian sentences, says Bowie, often “come to rest upon a recovered sense of propositional fulfillment, only to have certain of their elements wrested from them and driven into new associative configurations by what follows.”[xx]) Brahms will often employ an apparently direct allusion to music of the past (an example might be the quotation of Beethoven’s An Die Ferne Geliebte in the finale of the fourth symphony[xxi]) only to pivot from the expected syntax of this allusive proposition, typically refiguring his referent’s implicit semantic/stylistic structures to reflect his tendencies toward the dubious and ambivalent. This is very much of a piece with his ongoing efforts to assimilate and advance musical tradition on his own terms, and examining his allusions in this way allows us to articulate, without recourse to the reductive technical terms of musicology,[xxii] the evolving semantic dimension of his allusivity (how it plays dynamically upon a listener’s sense of memory and association, how it assimilates past to present, how it engages his/her ideas and expectations in a process of meaning-making, etc.) as well as how they made of what was for him an often oppressive musical legacy a source of the fresh, flexible, and new. In conceiving of them as analogous to Proust’s “complex pattern of…intention and…retrospective or sideways vistas,” in other words, we can make better sense of their narratives as evolving dialectics of memory and possibility.

To illustrate this, we may turn to the Opus 51 quartets. These two works, it has long been known, are positively steeped in echoes/allusions to other composers,[xxiii] but a number of their subtlest invocations of Beethoven (and I have here attended to only a small sample of those available[xxiv]) enact in my conception this peculiarly Proustian relation between remembered intentionality and provisional, and therefore original, semantic “play.” To begin with, here is a subtle allusion which crops up in the development of the countersubject in the first movement of Op. 51 no.1:

Example 2 A comparison of Op. 51 no.1 mvt. 1, mm. 34-36, the first variation of the countersubject, and mm. 249-251, where the development takes on, in the second violin and viola lines, the rhythmic and melodic shape of a Beethovenian “fate” motif.

The effect of this allusion, which takes nearly 250 bars to emerge as such, is difficult to describe out of context, but it is essentially a last, ultimately successful attempt to defuse a developmental tension that has animated the entire movement. All of the music leading up to this point is poised around a dialectical struggle between two conflicting themes, the rising subject (mm. 1-7) and the eight-note offbeat figure of the countersubject (mm. 35-36), and this moment of Beethovenian transformation—altering the countersubject, previously rendered usually over a compass of four notes and in an alternating rise/fall or fall/rise configuration, into a repeated “fate” motif—not only brings them together in simultaneous counterpoint, but conduces apparently without effort to the movement’s witty, faux-rallentando resolution:

Example 3 Op. 51 no. 1, mvt. 1 mm. 252-260, the faux-rallentando that concludes the first movement.

The effect of this, again like that of the allusion itself, is difficult to articulate, but from a narrative standpoint we might say that it accomplishes two things: 1.) It finds a way of defusing a dialectical tension that has consistently stymied the movement’s progression (Brahms tries repeatedly to bring his conflicting themes together before this allusion, only to repeatedly come to ground), and 2.) it redirects the movement’s implied, intentional narrative trajectory (in Beethovenian terms, conflicting thematic tropes assimilating toward an apotheosis) toward something more ambivalent and individualized—a resolution whereby triumphant developmental integration is suggested rather than actively played out, and closure is achieved through an echtBrahmsian gesture of rhythmic play.

This is worth exploring in greater detail. In the terms that I have described, this allusion is Proustian in essentially two ways: It assimilates multiple dimensions of musical time through a gesture of recall (the allusion unites the present form of the countersubject, the previous forms of the countersubject, and the alluded-to form of the countersubject in Beethoven), and recasts the semantic intentionality of its referent, a Beethovenian sonata narrative in which conflicting elements are brought together, into an ambivalent, provisional configuration—deliberating rendering ambiguous what, in Beethoven, was authoritative and direct. (It also, as it happens, recapitulates what we saw as the metaphorical narrative of the Schicksalslied, whereby an allusion to music of the past resolves tensions of the present.) This latter point—this wresting, in Bowie’s words, of an apparently fixed proposition into fresh associative form—is particularly important for our purposes, for it enables us to conceptualize much more clearly than we could in a conventional technical/theoretical analysis what I’ve termed this allusion’s “playful” assimilation of its semantic heritage. Where most allusions to Beethoven 5, like the one Raymond Knapp finds in the finale of Brahms 4,[xxv] are used to invoke an implied narrative which the composer can either affirm or subvert (usually one of struggle developmentally overcome), here Brahms, by deliberately sublimating those associations through a gesture of rhythmic play, seems to leave that potentiality implied but unexplored—part, as it were, of the Proustian “sideways vistas” present in his auditor’s imagination. Where we might expect this allusion to herald the start of an extended coda wherein, finally, the movement’s antinomies are wrought into accord, Brahms seems instead to shrug his shoulders and, by declining to play out this development explicitly, allows them to resolve provisionally, as though this Beethovenian resolution were part of a web of narrative possibilities to which the music relates but refuses to adhere. This interpretation is given extra weight if we follow David Lewin’s definition of the conflicting forces in this movement as differing “modes of musical thought” inherited from Brahms’s past,[xxvi] and we might say (again following the narrative of the Schicksalslied) that Brahms, simply by adverting to musico-narrative expectations of the past, is able to turn askance from them and, while pursuing a very intentional tack, allow fresh stylistic/semantic possibilities to proliferate around him. His allusive proposition is brought to rest, so to speak, on an emphatic final cadence, but leaves a larger narrative syntax to be explored.

This is, to be sure, a very speculative way of framing what is finally an eight-bar allusion in the context of a 248-bar work, but it does, I think, clarify some of the individualizing force behind Brahms’s allusive gesture, as well as exemplify what is perhaps the essential aspect of Beethovenian allusions as they operate in these quartets: They always give the impression (unlike, for example, the structural allusion to Schubert in the first movement of Op. 51 no. 1[xxvii]) of being both intentional and comprehensively integrative of their semantic heritage, never appropriating Beethoven’s “narrative syntax” for the sake of straightforward subversion or homage. Their typical mode could be compared to Harold Bloom’s notion of daemonization—the “revisionary ratio” whereby a creator individuates a remembered sublime by “describing” rather than “sympathizing” with its essential features[xxviii]—but is complexified by what I’ve defined as their Proustian tendency to reset these descriptions (which we might define as the enacting of an allusion at a remove from its narrative or expressive intent) in open-ended semantic configurations. This allows an often direct “memory” of a Beethovenian narrative or sensibility—for Beethoven was by temperament more given to direct, unequivocal expression than Brahms—to assimilate, through a direct engagement with the auditor’s memory and expectations, to something more questioning and ambivalent, that is to say, more authentically Brahmsian. All of this is of course highly subjective, but when contextualized alongside other allusions within these quartets we can, I think, see it borne out by the music.

Here, for example, is the all but unmissable allusion to Beethoven’s Op. 130 Cavatina in the second movement of Op. 51 no. 1:

Example 4 Op. 51 no. 1 mvt. 2 mm. 22-26.

Example 5 Beethoven Op. 130, mvt. 5 mm. 33-42.

Brahms’s allusivity in this passage is initially much more overt than in the previous movement—the crescendo rising figure of bars 22-23 culminating in an inverted major chord could almost, when taken in context, be called a quotation—but the peculiar allusive feint he makes in bars 25-27 is worth particularly close attention. Here Brahms seems to invoke the tenebrous transition into the “plunge into darkness, melancholia, and dread”[xxix] of the Cavatina’s middle section, but at the point of maximal emotional/narrative significance, the withdrawal from an inverted major chord into a descending pianissimo triplet figure, he sidesteps its implied thematic/harmonic trajectory and launches instead upon an extended A Flat Minor development of the triplet figure itself.

Example 6 Op. 51 no. 1, mvt. 2 mm. 27-31.

Where the original passage in Beethoven is used to transition into an anguished melodic uprising in C Flat Major (posing the question, in Maynard Solomon’s words, of “how to endure pain of this intensity…how to breathe freely again” which he will then answer in the later movements[xxx]), here Brahms, by developing the music that conduces to rather than enacts this emotional outburst, seems to interrogate the source of that very questioning. (“Why must I feel this way? Why must I respond in the way that’s expected?”) This moment of fearful potentiality in the Cavatina could, in theory, lead to anything, and Brahms by “describing” rather than “sympathizing” with its huge complex of emotive and narrative implications (in this case, as in the fifth symphony, a narrative of despair arduously overcome) suddenly seems to locate his own narrative within the fluid interstices of these implications themselves—finding original thought, as it were, in what Beethoven might have said. It is as if the music suddenly remembers the Cavatina, summons up its full range of musical-narrative associations, and then, while keeping these associations implied in the auditor’s imagination, spins off creatively between them, keeping its own allusive narrative poised, as Bowie says, on a dubious balance between “completion and necessary provisionality.”[xxxi]

This is, again, a very subjective reading of a brief allusion, but within the terms that I’ve described we can once again see Brahms assimilating multiple dimensions of musical time—the rising figure of bars 22-23 derives as well from the opening bars of the piece—and once again setting its received narrativity in a provisional, questioning configuration. The element of play as something witty and ludic is less pronounced here than in the first movement, but in so far as it articulates the music’s “transduction” of its semantic heritage (to borrow a term from genetics) the principle still applies: Brahms allows his music to remember a moment of musical-narrative significance in his Beethovenian past and then, by ambiguously resetting its semantic/narrative orientation, assimilates Beethoven’s fixed intentionality to something ambivalent and new. An authoritative Beethovenian sentence, with its implied sense of propositional fulfillment, is opened up to ambivalence and doubt, and its constitutive narrative/semantic elements are wrested, à la Proust, into fresh, open-ended figurations. A musical memory has given way to possibility.

We also witness this, and indeed much more directly, in the first movement of Op. 51 no. 2. Here is what Brahms does with an allusion that yokes a figure of supreme emotive and narrative in his oeuvre, the frei aber einsam (F-A-E) motif symbolizing the conflict and anguish of his personal life, to one in Beethoven’s, the first emergence of the Heiliger Dankgesang in the Op. 132 quartet:

Example 7 Op. 51 no. 2, mvt. 1 mm. 1-3 The opening F-A-E motif of Op. 51 no. 2 which Brahms will develop into a Beethovenian allusion in mm. 120-127.

Example 8 A comparison of Op. 51 no. 2, mvt. 1 mm. 120-127 and Beethoven’s Op. 132, mvt. 3 mm. 1-5.

Where this original figure in Beethoven has the character of an assuaging revelation, a heaven-sent “answer” to the unsettledness of the previous movements, here Brahms, by darkening his F-A-E allusion’s tonality (in spite of tracing C-A-C form of Beethoven’s C Lydian theme, the music remains in A Minor) and placing it before an exposition repeat, implicitly repositions it as a question in its own right. It is as if a transcendent, Beethovenian solution is tried for the particularly Brahmsian anxieties associated with the F-A-E motif and is found wanting. The music seems to twice advance this allusion as a way forward for the movement’s harmonic restlessness only to twice come up short, the first time leading to a literal starting-over in the repeat of the exposition, and the second to a thorny G-Sharp Minor interrogation of the allusion itself (mm. 129-133). It even hints at a third emergence of this allusion in bars 262-278, recapitulating the prefatory tied eight-note figure of bars 104-108, but abandons this possibility before it can come to fruition, soaring up to a fevered pitch in bars 278-282 and crashing back to Earth in bars 287-288. In narrative terms, it is as if the healing, consoling quality of allusion is tried, tested, and finally debunked, and the music is forced turn its unconsummated F-A-E recollections toward a resolution more dubious and open-ended. Their original transcendence, like the radiance of Hölderlin’s himmlischen, cannot be attained, but Brahms, in opening up his allusion’s implicit ambivalence and dubiety, is able to find in it a fresh, more personal narrative syntax to be pursued.

As a final example, here is what Brahms does with an allusion in the coda of the fourth movement of Op. 51 no. 2 to the final coda of Beethoven’s Op. 132 quartet: Example 9 Op. 51 no. 2, mvt. 4 mm. 234-243.

Example 10 Beethoven Op. 132, mvt. 5 mm. 287-306.

The effect of this moment in the Op. 132 is of a long-sought A Major breaking through, as if by divine revelation, a brooding, obsessive A Minor that has haunted the piece from the beginning. The cello traces in its treble register the tied, arpeggiated motif of the movement’s opening bars but leans into this figure on a G Sharp, transfiguring it seemingly without effort into radiant A Major. The other parts duly fall in line with this modulation in the following measure, and the music, having attained what T.S. Eliot called a kind of “heavenly or at least more than human gaiety,”[xxxii] races clear of its A Minor shadows to end on a chuckling shout of joy (mm. 394-402). Brahms, surely conscious of this unforgettable effect, recapitulates this cello-lead transformation in bars 238-240 of his quartet—the cello traces a smoothed-out version of the movement’s rondo theme in A major—but thereafter resets its implied narrative trajectory in a more Brahmsian direction. The last movement of the Op. 51 no. 2 is a lusty, rhythmically inventive elaboration of the quartet’s opening material (including the F-A-E motif we saw developed in movement 1), but Brahms, after feinting towards a Beethovenian A Major resolution beginning in bar 237, pulls back and ends instead on a lively gypsy-style variation in A Minor:

Example 11 Op. 59 no. 2 mvt. 4 mm. 328-358.

The effect of this abortive allusive gesture is rather like that of the first movement’s, invoking a moment of transcendent Beethovenian apotheosis only to spin off in a more ambivalent, more Brahmsian direction. Just as the first movement of Op. 51 no.1 ends with an implied Beethovenian “resolution” (the da-da-da-dum fusion of the A and B themes) conducing to a Brahmsian resolution of rhythmic play, here the music adverts to a sublime, affirming ending only to eschew this implied apotheosis in favor of playful, even cheeky finish. The fixed, authoritative propositions of Beethovenian memory are thus summoned up only to give way, as if with a wink and a nudge, to unconsummated possibility, making what was once Beethoven’s into something fully Brahms’s own.

In Proust’s own reading of interpretation “the end of a book’s wisdom is the beginning of our own.”[xxxiii] Although this way of exploring Brahms’s allusions does not elucidate them from a technical perspective (which has, in any case, been amply done by musicologists since the 19th century), it allows us to investigate them as metaphor, a modality that admits of more nuance in defining complex allusions than musicology’s usual paradigms of assimilation vs. contrast. Metaphor, says Christopher Ricks, depends on apprehending a truly new combination of similitude and dissimilitude, and with it the multivalent structures of likeness and unlikeness that allow new “meaning” to come into being.[xxxiv] It opens up a space of complex interchange between existing and emergent ideas, what has been said in the past versus what is being said in the present, and invites the reader/listener to participate in a game-like process of negotiation between them. In every respect, this way of framing and conceptualizing allusions suits Brahms down to the ground, for it takes into account the knowing, playful qualities of his allusivity—Paul Berry, for example, has demonstrated how many of Brahms’s allusions were intended as coded messages to his friends[xxxv]—and accommodates their tendencies toward ambivalence and uncertainty. The limitations of this approach, its dependence on subjectivites like musical narrative and time, limit its effectiveness as an objective modality of interpretation, but insofar as it clarifies the narrative “surface” of Brahms’s allusivity, as Gingerich’s reading does of Schubert’s, it helps us frame more clearly these works’ complex engagement with their Beethovenian heritage.
Notes
[i] Christopher Ricks, Allusions of the Poets (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 82.

[ii] Taken from Friedrich Hölderlin: Selected Poems and Fragments (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1998), 25.

[iii] See Martin Heidegger, Hölderlin’s Hymn “Remembrance” Translated by William McNeill and Julie Ireland (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2018).

[iv] Quoted in Jan Swafford, Johannes Brahms: A Biography (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997), 606.

[v] Precise dating of these works based on their times of conception and completion is problematic. We do know that the earliest Schicksalslied sketch was written in 1868 (the year Brahms’ op. 45 requiem was premiered), and that Brahms claimed that the op. 51 quartets were “begun earlier” but written “for the second time” in 1873 (Swafford, 659).

[vi] John M. Gingerich, Schubert’s Beethoven Project (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014), 14.

[vii] Ibid. 136.

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] Ibid. 137.

[x] Gingerich makes the point that Beethoven’s particular individuation of the sonata form—defined by its end-orientated thematic/motivic development, its expression of form as process, and its inexorable presence of line—was institutionalized as the normative musical style of the 19th century, and that most new music was subsequently judged against it. This remained the case well into the 20th century (Gingerich, 106).

[xi] Gingerich, 137.

[xii] This principle of a Proustian temporality avant la lettre is justified by Gingerich through a citation of Charles Rosen’s The Romantic Generation. In this work, Rosen demonstrates that the notion of Proustian memory, which we might define as an amalgam of involuntary recollection and dual-temporality (the past assimilated in discrete moments to the present), had already been formulated in the late 18th and early 19th centuries by writers such as Wordsworth and Ramond de Carbonnieres, and that their principles had already by the time of Schubert acquired common currency. There is nothing casuistic, therefore, about applying Proustian analogies to Schubert, Brahms, or any European artist of the 19th century, for “Proustian” ideas existed even before they were formulated and defined as such.

[xiii] Wilhelm Dilthey writes in Gesammelte Schriften that an artist (a visual artist in this case) frequently unifies all of his impressions of reality around a single “point” (Eindruckspunkt) which gives articulation to the whole. This principle (which is generally less useful for analyzing music than it is literature or the fine arts) is uniquely applicable to Schubert here, for Schubert, the consummate songster, habitually frames entire movements around melodies or motives which are “responsible for providing cohesion and continuity between large, clearly demarcated blocks of music” (Gingerich, 114).

[xiv] Walter Frisch, “’You Must Remember This’: Memory and Structure in Schubert’s String Quartet in G Major D. 887,” The Musical Quarterly 84/4 (Winter 2000), 582-600.

[xv] John Daverio. Crossing Paths: Schubert, Schumann, and Brahms (Cary: Oxford University Press, 2002), 55-56.

[xvi] Gingerich, 137-138.

[xvii] Malcolm Bowie, Proust among the Stars (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998), 41.

[xviii] Quoted in Bowie, xv.

[xix] Gingerich’s notion of Proustian musical “time,” he admits, is impossible to justify in theoretical terms. It is enacted not on the normal, technical levels—structure, rhythm, harmony, etc.—of music theory, but rather on the level of narrative audiation, the complex tendency of listeners to ascribe story elements to abstract musical forms. Because the language and tools of music theory are overwhelming spatial and not temporal, these story elements are difficult to theorize, and we are left with “prose, in all its imprecision and subjectivity” (Gingerich, 110). I take Gingerich to mean by this that “prose”—encompassing abstract analogy and metaphor—is the best way of articulating music’s temporal and narrative effects, and that its limitations on the level of music theory, while regrettable, are also unavoidable. This essay, for better or worse, has followed the same principle.

[xx] Bowie, 65.

[xxiii] Allusions may be found to many, if not most of Brahms’s canonical predecessors, and many of them have been noticed and analyzed over the years. As this ground has been well trodden in over a century of Brahmsian research, I have made no effort to be comprehensive and would refer the interested reader to the vast existing library on the subject.

[xxiv] The question of what does and does not constitute an allusion within these quartets is inevitably subjective and problematic, and I’ve refrained here from engaging in the kind of analytical justification that characterizes most studies of Brahmsian allusivity. What concerns me more are their effects, however abstract, within the works’ surface narratives.

[xxv] Raymond Knapp. “Brahms and the Anxiety of Allusion.” Journal of Musicological Research 18/4 (1998): 1–30.

[xxvi] Lewin identifies this conflict, played out for him in the piece’s opening bars, as one between Beethovenian “sentence rhetoric” and Mozartean lyricism (“during bars 9-10 and the lyric trope of bars 11-12…[w]e observe here an abrupt shift of rhetorical mode, temporarily negating the peremptory demands of the Beethovenian sentence by indulging in the lyric luxuriance of Mozartean dominant prolongation“) and he extrapolates from this a dialectic of style that drives the entire movement.

[xxvii] Formally, this movement bears much the same relation to Schubert’s Quartettsatz that the third movement of Brahms’s Piano Concerto no. 1 bears to the third movement of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto no. 3: They can, in Charles Rosen’s words, “be described and analyzed to a great extent as if they were the same piece” (qtd. in Swafford, 171).

[xxviii] Haraold Bloom’s The Anxiety of Influence has frequently been employed in analyses of Brahms’s allusions to his predecessors, with interesting if inconsistent results. I quote his description of “daemonization” here because it aptly characterizes the way Brahms distances himself from a remembered sublime while quoting and individuating it, but the comparison can only go so far. Bloom’s formulation applies primarily to poets who took a corrective and therefore self-promoting stance in relation to a predecessor (an example would be the way the irreligious Shelley and Byron “daemonized” Milton’s religious sublime), but Brahms never gives the impression of alluding to the past in order to diminish it. On the contrary, his allusions can sometimes seem like gestures of obeisance or self-abasement, an acknowledgment to his auditor that, “yes, I know I can’t match this, but you can see that I’m not going to try.”

[xxix] Maynard Solomon, Late Beethoven: Music, Thought, Imagination (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003), 239.

[xxx] Ibid.

[xxxi] Bowie, 41.

[xxxii] Quoted in Lyndall Gordon, Eliot’s New Life (New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1988), 143.

[xxxiii] Marcel Proust, “On Reading.” Collected in Marcel Proust and John Ruskin on Reading (London: Hesperus Press, 2011).

[xxxiv] Ricks, 85.

[xxxv] Paul Berry, Brahms Among Friends (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014).

Plath’s Psychological Landscapes

(I adapted this piece from an essay I wrote at Oxford. The tone is stuffier than I generally try to aim for in this blog, but I stand by what it says. I’m also, to be honest, pretty proud that I managed to research and write this essay the space of two days.)

It is now commonplace to refer to Sylvia Plath as one of the foremost “autobiographical” poets of the 20th century (falling just short of Robert Lowell in point of confessional intensity), but the channels through which these aspects of autobiography were incorporated into her work were often sinuous and deceptive. Plath’s habitual poetic instinct, like that of her husband Ted Hughes, was always mythopoeic rather than documentary, and her poems typically reflect a desire to transmute rather than simply record the quiddity of the actual and mundane. Her posthumous 1965 collection Ariel, conceived during a period of intense emotional and psychic upheaval, culminating in her suicide in 1963, reflects very powerfully this tendency toward a mythopoeic (or self-mythologizing) transmutation/absorption of the everyday. Nowhere is this more in evidence than in the collection’s use of landscape. Plath’s quotidian impressions of the Yorkshire countryside (the primary setting of Ariel’s composition) are stitched very closely into the poetic and psychological subjectivities of her verse, and they can frequently can be seen to mythologize (or “psychologize”) her poems’ life-to-death trajectories toward oblivion. I offer here, then, some thoughts on how these quasi-mythological “landscapes” are manifested in Ariel’s verse.

Plath is not typically grouped among the 20th century’s nature poets—she has consistently been overshadowed in this respect by the work of her husband—but there is undoubtedly a strain of abstract, almost Emersonian naturalism that permeates her work. Emerson, a born and bred Bostonian like Plath, believed in the innate permeability of the human psyche to the natural world (witness his statement in “Nature,” his essay of… that “nature always wears the colors of the spirit”) and always strived (again, like Plath) for an artistic assimilation of the external phenomena of nature into the internal noumena of the self. This is very much of a piece with Plath’s self-mythologizing poetics (collections like The Colossus frequently dramatize the antinomy of man and nature),but what is especially notable in Ariel is a tendency to literally “incorporate” these phenomenal experiences into perceptual extensions of the body—assimilating landscape literally into mindscape. One only has to think of the preponderance of hunger and consumption imagery in Ariel to see this process at work (we recall that Plath’s partial Germanness is absorbed in “Daddy” as “the clear beer of Vienna”) and to consider the tendency of simple natural images (e.g. the titular flowers in “tulips”) to resolve to ones of food (“I imagine them / Shutting their mouths on it, like a Communion tablet”) to witness Plath’s edacious assimilation of nature into her mental/physical topology. If, as Judith Kroll asserts in Chapter in a Mythology: The Poetry of Sylvia Plath, the primary drive of Plath’s mythopoeic project is towards an incorporation of all the external lineaments of “reality”into a poetic subjectivity, then this symbolic devouring of the natural world represents a characteristic effort to psychologize her exterior experience.

The genesis of Plath’s efforts to incorporate the Yorkshire landscape into her poems’ mythopoeic, self-psychologizing structures can be traced, depending on how one interprets her employments of landscape hitherto, from the final years of the 1950s, at which point poems such as “Hardcastle Crags,” “The Two Campers,” and “Waking in Winter” begin to adumbrate the kind of psycho-poetic geographies that reach their terminus in Ariel. “Hardcastle Crags” in particular, which was written in 1957, represents Plath’s first wholesale departure from the pastoral, Emersonian naturalism of poems like “Watercolor of Grantchester Meadows” (“There, spring lambs jam the sheepfold. In air / Stilled, silvered as water in a glass / Nothing is big or far”) and is one of her first poems to consciously analogize physical and psychological poetics.

All the night gave her, in return

For the paltry gift of her bulk and the beat

Of her heart was the humped indifferent iron

Of its hills…The whole landscape

Loomed absolute as the antique world was

Once in its earliest sway of lymph and sap,

Unaltered by eyes

Whereas Emerson’s poetics of landscape (which are themselves profoundly indebted to Wordsworth’s) typically adumbrate the ecstatic assimilation of a subject to the natural world, here Plath dramatizes the psychology of alienation by presenting nature as something inimical and malicious. The implied tendency of the “eyes” that Plath refers to (which are perhaps indebted to Emerson’s “transparent eye balls”) is to apprehend or alter its external environment, but the hostility of the crags is such that the subject is forced literally to turn her gaze away (“before the weight / Of stones and hills of stones could break / Her down to mere quartz grit in that stony light / She turned back”). The landscape thus becomes the external embodiment of an inimical psychic mindset, and her attempts to accommodate its “humped indifferent iron”a thwarted effort to wrest it under control. Nature is no longer, in other words, the pacific and consoling force of “Grantchester Meadows,” but rather a cruel expression of enclosure and restraint—the constrictive psycho-geographic structures which, according to critic Ingrid Melander, a poet (and especially a poet suffering from mental illness) must internalize to overcome.

The primary trajectory of Plath’s pre-Ariel poetry, then (of which “Hardcastle Crags” is only an exemplar) is always towards a poetic/psychological apprehension of an inimical external world—assimilating, through quasi-mythological transformation, the external phenomena of nature into a unifying (and crucially controlling) subjectivity. In fact, the word trajectory is an especially apposite one in this case, for as we saw in “Hardcastle Crags,” Plath’s efforts to assimilate or subsume the physical/psychological landscape are frequently stymied by psycho-poetic barriers (e.g. the “Guarded broods and litters / Behind shut doors”), and it is only in Ariel that a full synthesis of landscape and mindscape is achieved. Notice, for example, how “Waking in Winter,” a poetic fragment that predates Ariel by just over a year, subtly adumbrates images and themes (eating/consumption, indifference, natural cruelty, etc.) that anticipate the more complete personal-geographical unions of “Elm” and “The Moon and the Yew Tree:”

I can taste the tin of the sky—the real tin thing

Winter dawn is the color of metal,

The trees stiffen into place like burnt nerves.

All night I have dreamed of destruction, annihilations—

An assembly-line of cut throats, and you and I

Inching off in the gray Chevrolet, drinking the green

Poison of stilled lawns

Already in this poem can we see Plath beginning to physically incorporate the landscape through the metaphor of consumption (“I can taste the tin of the sky” etc.), and to effect the kind of psycho-physical correlations (“The trees stiffen into place like burnt nerves”) that “psychologize” the external world. However, the effect of these correlations is always mitigated by a sense of distance—a sense that Plath is still perceptually and ontologically distinguished from her subject(s)—and it is not until we arrive at Ariel proper that this distinction is ameliorated. Observe, for example, how the trees of “Waking in Winter” (standing symbolically, one assumes, for Plath’s electrically-addled neurons) are transformed in “Elm” from external metaphor to internal subjectivity (“I have suffered the atrocity of sunsets. / Scorched to the root / My red filaments burn and stand, a hand of wires”) and how its “stilled lawns” become literally subjected to her absolutized naturalism in “The Moon and the Yew Tree” (“The grasses unload their griefs on my feet as if I were God, / Prickling my ankles and murmuring of their humility”). Now in her full mythopoeic, naturally assimilative mode, Plath has passed from calling on nature for illustration to mimetically projecting herself onto it—effecting a complete synthesis of physical/psychological perception and “becoming” the landscape for herself.

Various scholars have interpreted, as I alluded to at the start, this desire to “become one” with this psycho-geographic landscape partly as a symbolic expression of the death drive that animates so much of her late verse. However, if we treat Plath’s poetic assimilations with nature solely as gestures toward annihilation (recall that the stars/snowflakes of ‘The Night Dances” reduce to “Touching and melting. / Nowehere”) we all but vitiate the complex and multivalent poetic structures that enliven her psycho-poetic landscapes before directing them to destruction. It is not the act of assimilation itself, in other words, which Plath equates with self-destruction, but rather the self-abnegating surrender to the darkness and indifference that nature inherently represents. Observe, for example, how “The Moon and the Yew Tree” (written in response to a Yew at North Tawton) expertly dramatizes the progress of a mind at first animating nature and then giving in to its impersonal nullity.

This is the light of the mind, cold and planetary.

The trees of the mind are black. The light is blue.

…The moon is no door. It is a face in its own right,

White as a knuckle and terribly upset.

It drags the sea after it like a dark crime; it is quiet

With the O-gape of complete despair. I live here.

…The moon sees nothing of this. She is bald and wild.

And the message of the yew tree is blackness—blackness and silence.

Already within this poem’s first line (“This is the light of the mind, cold and planetary”), we can see a complete integration of the external realities of nature into Plath’s subjective experience (how otherwise could the light of the mind be “planetary?”), and witness the static phenomenon of light and color assimilated into active intellection. This assimilation is expanded in the following lines to embrace trees (“The trees of the mind are black”), grass (“The grasses unload their griefs on my feet”), and even the extra-planetary Moon (“The moon is no door…The moon is my mother”), but once all of these elements have been subsumed within Plath’s psycho-poetic ambit—notice how each of these static and impersonal elements is endowed with “human” characteristics—she shifts from trying to bring the landscape poetically to life to embracing its oblivious death. (“The Moon sees nothing of this… / And the message of the Yew Tree is blackness—blackness and silence”). It is as if Plath, once she has fully marshaled the landscape within her mythopoeic idiom, is compelled to submit to a thanatotic impulse that is inherent in nature itself, to enact its invariant and inexorable progression from being into non-being.

The poem in Ariel which perhaps best exemplifies this thanatotic progression from life to death (at least as revealed within psycho-poetic “landscape”) is the chilling “Rabbit Catcher” from 1962.What is truly remarkable about this poem, particularly as regards its mythopoeic engagement with nature, is the way in which Plath at once assimilates its natural geography (“I tasted the malignity of the gorse, / Its black spikes, / The extreme unction of its yellow candle-flowers”) and alienates herself from it—making herself at once master and victim of the indifferent nullity it represents.

There was only one place to get to.

Simmering, perfumed,

The paths narrowed into the hollow.

And the snares almost effaced themselves—

Zeros, shutting on nothing.

…Shutting shut on some quick thing,

The constriction killing me also.

What Plath is essentially trying to do here (which distinguishes “The Rabbit Catcher,” at least in point of conceptual ambition, from every other poem in the collection) is to effect a startling rupture in her speaker’s narrative subjectivity, at once “becoming” the psychologized landscape of the poem (“Simmering, perfumed, / The paths narrowed into the hollow”) and a disempowered subject (e.g. the constricted rabbit) within it. Plath’s obsession with doubles and duality has been well documented, but this expert (dis)integration of the physical and psychological landscape enables her to dramatize both her own subjection and assimilation to its thanatotic structures—the “paths” (marriage, depression, self-contempt) which narrow into the constricted killing of its final lines. She is, in other words, both the rabbit that is caught and killed by an oppressive external world, and the indifferent natural/psychological landscape that enforces its destruction—a perfect metaphor for the life of a poet finally “denatured” by her own oppressive and depressive psychic subjectivity.

It is entirely possible, perhaps even likely that Plath would find little to recognize of herself in these interpretations. Autobiography, even for confessional poets like Plath, is only one tool in the artist’s toolkit, and the different formal and technical demands of composition shape this autobiography in ways that even the poet can’t control. However, given Plath’s lifelong interest in psychology and the theory of the mind, and in particular the work of Carl Jung, it doesn’t seem too much of a reach to read aspects of psychology into any aspects of her poetry, particularly one as prevalent as physical landscape. Looking for the “real Plath” in her poems, as opposed to the artfully mythologized persona that she cultivated from her earliest work, is a little bit like chasing shadows, pursuing the rabbit that got out of its trap. However, even if these shadows are and shall remain uncatchable, we can still draw a lot from analyzing the different landscapes across which they are cast.