Saturday, January 22, 2011

"Anticipatory or reflective aberrations"

Ray Davis on the fugue as literary metaphor:
Written language, like a violin but more so, is not a polyphonic instrument, and therefore it can only imply complex harmonies and simultaneous lines through anticipatory or reflective aberrations which the mind weaves across paragraphs and pages, as when weaving the implied melodies of Bach's works for solo strings. The term "fugue" appeals by emphasizing the mental effort without which intended polyphony remains apparent disorder. 

It's a nice idea and I am drawn to the word "aberrations" in this context, because it reminds me of Frost holding a pane of ice against "the world of hoary grass." But I wonder if it isn't an overly modernist term for what's meant here. One thinks of Keats's odes as having complex harmonies but it's not clear that "aberrations" are involved; Keats is definitely not doing the police in different voices. Maybe the premise is fundamentally wrong. The relationship between written language and time is not straightforward; verse moves differently depending on whether you read it silently or aloud; there are poems, like the Nightingale ode, that have a propulsive force to them, and others, like the Grecian Urn and Melancholy odes, for which "motion" is not the right word at all. Few of the modernists in English were at all painterly -- there's David Jones, and one should read Wyndham Lewis but hasn't -- but I feel like it wouldn't be too hard to come up with earlier examples in which the "movement" is slow enough that there are a lot of parts, say the entire content of a Spenserian stanza in the Faerie Queene, moving together, in which case polyphony is a relatively natural effect.

One should distinguish between descriptive passages, like the temple of Mars in Chaucer's Knight's Tale, in which the description is "temporal" and you're hurried from one sight to another as at the Met, and those like Keats's Autumn ode, where it seems more natural to keep the whole picture in your mind at once.

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