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Rhetorical Contract in the Lyric Poem

by Linda Gregerson

The Kenyon Review
Spring 2006

Dryden once wittily described Donne's love poetry as calculated to "perplex the minds of the fair sex." Part of the pleasure of the witticism, of course, lies in its cutting edge. The Kenyon Review, Spring 2006 Beneath the surface of impassioned courtship, Dryden suggests, one finds a less-than-fully-deferential attitude toward women: the overheated importunities of Donne's love poems – the most athletic love poems in the language – are assumed to be pitched quite beyond the comprehension of the lady or ladies to whom they purport to be addressed. Does Dryden mean to suggest that Donne's method (the dizzying virtuosity of his syntax and imagery) and his ostensible matter (sexual seduction) are intractably at odds? That Donne undermines himself by indulging in his own chronic propensity for showing off? Or are we rather to understand that perplexity is somehow conducive to sexual surrender? The one unambiguous link between Dryden's witty analysis and Donne's witty poetry, at least as Dryden would have us construe it, appears to be the rakish misogyny that serves as their common foundation: sexual gamesmanship is imagined to be a species of pleasure that takes place at the expense of its "fairer" partner.

These playful entanglements of sex and condescension are conspicuous in another of the poets we have come to call "metaphysical." Andrew Marvell does not favor so convoluted a syntax nor so fevered a display of philosophical speculation as those we associate with Donne, but, like Donne, he works at the boundaries of excess. His overwrought similes and out-sized metaphors – conceits, as we call them – confess their own laboriousness and thus their insufficiency. Behind the busy surface of poetic figure there appears a discomfiting gap, an inadequate "fit" between the material world, or the figurative imagination that draws upon it, and the "something else" that imagination tries to represent. When Dryden and Samuel Johnson sought to describe – and to disparage – this penchant in certain seventeenth-century poetry, they called it "metaphysical." Dr. Johnson in particular heartily disapproved of a poetry in which "the most heterogeneous ideas are yoked by violence together." Modern readers have come to regard the Metaphysicals with a friendlier eye, but they have not disputed the violence of the metaphysical imagination, its willful enactment of discordance and disproportion, its preference for friction over smoothness. Our own sensibilities find sympathetic echo in these very dynamics. But we ought not to tame Dr. Johnson's insight overmuch: there is something dark, something dangerous behind the flamboyance and conspicuous exertion of the metaphysical imagination. We may see this darkness at work not only in the figurative yoking – the metaphysical conceit Dr. Johnson had in mind – but also in the sexual yoking so central to the metaphysical poem. Here, for example, is the first verse paragraph of Andrew Marvell's most frequently anthologized lyric:

To His Coy Mistress

   Had we but world enough, and time,
This coyness, lady, were no crime.
We would sit down, and think which way
To walk, and pass our long love's day.
Thou by the Indian Ganges' side
Shouldst rubies find; I by the tide
Of Humber would complain. I would
Love you ten years before the flood,
And you should, if you please, refuse
Till the conversion of the Jews.
My vegetable love should grow
Vaster than empires and more slow;
An hundred years should go to praise
Thine eyes, and on thy forehead gaze;
Two hundred to adore each breast,
But thirty thousand to the rest;
An age at least to every part,
And the last age should show your heart.
For, lady, you deserve this state,
Nor would I love at lower rate. (478-79)

How shall we begin to parse this extravagant rhetoric? Exotic location: "Indian Ganges." Hyperbolic expanses of time: "an hundred years," "two hundred," "thirty thousand." Elevated language: rhymed couplets, stately tetrameter, refined grammatical mood (dominated by the subjunctive). The poem is addressed to the speaker's "mistress," that is, a lady to whom courtesy and courtly convention and erotic longing attribute a superordinate status, a power to command. She is said to be "coy," that is, strategically withholding. She is thus imagined as capable of calculation and of extracting erotic compliment at a high "rate." The poet professes to be more than willing to provide what she would have, but surely it is less than complimentary to charge the lady with calculation. "Coyness" in Marvell's era might be used to connote mere reticence, but the less neutral connotation was already coming into ascendancy; it would take a very innocent lady indeed to gaze into the mirror of Marvell's poem and see herself figured as unaffectedly "shy." We may note, while we're at it, the conspicuous third-person possessive in the title of the poem: to his, not my, coy mistress. That the title conforms to convention should not dull us to its strategic subtlety; convention is often the repository of strategic subtlety. The body of the poem is written in first- and second-persons; the lover addresses his lady directly. And yet in the title of the poem, he coolly acknowledges another audience. For whose amusement is this lady being wooed?

And then there is the extended subjunctive: hypothesis contrary to fact. Had we world enough and time.... but we do not. Taking everything back before it is given, the poet inventories the lavish forms of courtship he "would," but will not, be happy to perform. The inventory itself, if truth be told, is rather perfunctory: ten years, a hundred, etc.; your eyes, your forehead, etc. "Vegetable love" is wonderful (though what exactly does it mean? Scholarly annotation about the ancient division of souls – vegetative, sensitive, and rational – falls flat somehow). "Till the conversion of the Jews" (i.e., till the eve of Apocalypse) is better yet. It is perhaps too good. The apocalyptic vista rhymes so neatly with the lady's scruple ("Jews," "refuse") that the poem's wide disproportions are made to seem preposterous. It is not chiefly lack of time and "world" that prevents the suitor from suing in the heightened manner dictated by poetic convention: it is aesthetic disdain. The suitor is burlesquing the very expansiveness with which he is expected to sue. Expected by whom? By the lady, or so her lover unchivalrously implies. It is as though a woman of our own day were charged with basing her fantasy life upon the daytime soaps. Marvell's coy mistress finds herself accused not only of manipulative affectation but also of frank bad taste. What kind of woman would be wooed like this?

The tone of insult deepens in the second section of the poem:

But at my back I always hear
Time's wingèd chariot hurrying near;
And yonder all before us lie
Deserts of vast eternity.
Thy beauty shall no more be found;
Nor, in thy marble vault, shall sound
My echoing song; then worms shall try
That long-preserved virginity,
And your quaint honor turn to dust,
And into ashes all my lust:
The grave's a fine and private place,
But none, I think, do there embrace. (479)

Following the slightly acerbic stipulation with which he concluded the first section of his wooing speech (I think too highly of your deserts and of myself to love "at lower rate"), the lover puts forth his official explanation for refusing to woo by the book. And as if to show what he could do if he would, he "explains" in a flight of eloquence. Far from affording us dignified or delectable leisure, he says, time is a "wingèd chariot" hastening toward our end. The only vastness at our disposal is the vastness of the afterlife. That afterlife affords no vistas of erotic or moral "desért," but merely the emptiness of a désert. The logic of the lover's argument is the logic of carpe diem: "seize (or savor) the day." It was a well-worn logic in the Renaissance, as it had been since the time of Horace. "Gather ye rosebuds while ye may," wrote Marvell's contemporary Robert Herrick, "Old time is still a-flying; / And this same flower that smiles today / Tomorrow will be dying (357)." Counseling a maiden to seize the day was also a well-worn stratagem of seducers, as the conclusion of Herrick's poem makes clear:

Then be not coy, but use your time,
             And, while ye may, go marry;
For, having lost but once your prime,
             You may forever tarry. (358)

This poem is brazenly addressed "To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time."

Like Herrick, Marvell is quite explicit about the unlovely threat his hurry-up implies. In neither poet do we find the faithful suitor's profession, "To me you shall always be lovely." Nor even, "I shall love you forever despite the ravages of age." Not at all. Explicated for the benefit of virgins in general, or a coy mistress in particular, desire is found to be quite as ruthless as time. Desire has a short half-life; ladies must get while the getting is good. Lest the lewdness of the insult be lost on the lady, Marvell introduces a pair of genital insinuations. "You scruple to preserve your bodily intactness?" the lover taunts. "You haven't a prayer; it's either me or the worms." Nor is "quaint" honor half so fastidious as it at first appears to be: Chaucer used "queynte" – and Renaissance authors used it too – to denote the female pudendum.

Now that both mistress and lovemaking have been quite stripped of their pretensions, now that the lady knows just where she stands, both in the general marketplace and in her lover's particular regard, the lover unleashes his most fevered proposition:

Now therefore, while the youthful hue
Sits on thy skin like morning dew,
And while thy willing soul transpires
At every pore with instant fires,
Now let us sport us while we may,
And now, like amorous birds of prey,
Rather at once our time devour
Than languish in his slow-chapped power.
Let us roll all our strength and all
Our sweetness up into one ball,
And tear our pleasures with rough strife
Through the iron gates of life:
Thus, though we cannot make our sun
Stand still, yet we will make him run. (479)

Note the driven enjambments: "all / Our sweetness," "sun / Stand still." This is forward motion with a vengeance. Not turtle doves, but "birds of prey." Not gilded portals, but "iron gates." The lover proposes a world in which the alternatives are not so much "eat or be eaten," but "eat and be eaten" or "be eaten alone." Not one creature is not caught in the mortal machinery; only with violence can the day (and the initiative) be seized.

The poet's bravado is undeniably exhilarating, and yet we may return to the question that Dryden implicitly asked of Donne: Can this poem really be after what it purports to be after? Can it, as a seduction poem, by even the wildest stretch of imagination be designed to work? What kind of woman would be successfully wooed like this? Either, I would respectfully suggest, she must be a very stupid one, one so dull to insult and so eager to be swept off her feet that she succumbs to her fate obliviously, or she must be a very clever one indeed, one willing to join the lover in his high-spirited contempt for convention, one capable of discerning the compliment behind the ostensible slur. This lady – the second one – would be a woman to whom the poet might signal above the head, as it were, of the foolish figure he playfully pretends to take her for. It is this second lady in whom I prefer to believe, and whom I believe the Marvellian poem proposes: a worthy and an active partner in intellect, in appetite, in irreverent conversation, and in bed.


To focus on rhetoric is to focus on the social premise that underlies all linguistic practice, to emphasize those aspects of language that constitute a series of tacit and explicit negotiations between speaker and audience. To focus on rhetoric in the lyric poem is willfully to ignore, or to take with a grain of salt, the historical and heuristic divisions between poetry and public speaking. For poetry, like public speaking, has a suasive agenda: the poem may affect the contours of solitary meditation or unfiltered mimesis, the recklessness of outburst or the abstraction of music, but it always also seeks to convince, or coerce, or seduce a reader; it is never disinterested, never pure; it has designs on the one who listens or reads.

And the one who listens or reads is never "one" in the literal sense. I have spoken as though Marvell's reader and his lady were in some sense equivalent, but of course there is a difference between the dramatic and textual "staging" of rhetoric. The Kenyon Review, Spring 2006 In "To His Coy Mistress," as in the vast preponderance of Petrarchan lyric, the poet's negotiation with his lady is dramatically staged. (In rhetorical terms, it makes no difference whether the lady is entirely fictive or not.) The poet's negotiation with his reader is, by contrast, textually staged, and harder to describe without falsification. We are used to construing this reader (every reader except the single imagined beloved, that is) as an outer audience, an audience who overhears or eavesdrops on the lyric conversation or complaint. And certainly this reader, this third party to seduction, is in many respects even further from the poet's reach than is the reluctant lady: belonging neither to a place, a sex, or a historical period within the author's control. But the helpful concept of "outer" is also misleading. The push and pull of pleasure and abatement, teasing and withdrawal, coyness and expectation are every bit as "inward" to the process of reading-in-time as to the process of dramatized seduction. The reader may ally herself now with the poet's virtuosity, now with the beloved's strategic silence, now with the momentums of genre and convention, now with their witty overturning; but in all these modulations the reader is an intimate too, one of the partners in utterance.


When the sonnet was imported into English from the Italian, early in the sixteenth century, it was understood to comprise a set of formal conventions (fourteen lines of eleven syllables, which became in English iambic pentameter; a fixed rhyme scheme) and, of equal importance, a set of thematic and rhetorical conventions. Sonnets came in groups, or sequences. They told a story; or rather, they refused to tell a story outright but were built around a story that took place in the white space between individual lyrics. The story was of love: love unrequited, love requited but unfulfilled, love so fleetingly fulfilled as merely to make suffering keener, love thwarted by the beloved's absence, or aloofness, or prior possession by another. Impediment was as central to the sonnet as was love. Impediment produced the lyric voice. Without impediment, the lover would have no need to resort to poetry.

Argument had always been one of the common rhetorical modes of the sonnet, but it was the English who made argument supreme, subordinating every other rhetorical momentum. No longer was the sonnet exclusively dominated by the interior logic of meditation or the associative logic of image; no longer was the poet content to dwell upon fugitive sightings of the beloved (as had been the case in Petrarch, for example). The poet had a case to make and a primary audience of one: you, dear creature, should return my love for any number of excellent reasons which I could name; you should put aside this reticence; you should grant me a kiss; you should grant me more than a kiss; you should be faithful only to me; you should be as I imagine you to be. At a playful extreme, the poet/lover in Sidney's Astrophil and Stella pretends to catch his lady in a logical trap, applying the rules of grammar to force her erotic capitulation: "O Grammer rules," the lover expostulates, "o now your vertues show," for she, "Least once should not be heard, twise said, No, No." Since grammar says that a double negative produces an affirmative, the lady is now obliged by the rules of grammar to bestow her favors on her lover, or so her lover professes in his sonnet. This is speech act with a vengeance.

If the rhetoric of Astrophil and Stella is dominated by the stratagems and dalliance of foreplay, the rhetoric of Shakespeare's sonnet sequence is dominated by the post-coital: its "plot" and its rhetorical ingenuity are driven not by the beloved's resistance but by the beloved's inconstancy. In its roughest outlines, the argument of the Shakespearean sequence goes something like this: The poet begins by attempting to persuade the young man that he (the young man) should marry, or should in any case engender children. Women, the necessary vehicles of biological generation, soon drop out of the hortatory configuration altogether, however, to be replaced by the poet/lover and the posterity secured by his poems. Triangulation drops away and the suit becomes direct: "Mate. Get children," becomes "Mate with me. Get poems." There are problems. There is a rival for the young man's affection. The young man is unfaithful. The poet appears to have been unfaithful. A dark lady enters, reintroducing the triangle. The poet is tormented. The poet adopts many rhetorical stratagems in his effort to extract stability from a radically unstable prospect. In sonnet 116, he resorts to lofty overview:

Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove.
O no, it is an ever-fixéd mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wand'ring bark,
Whose worth's unknown, although his height be taken.
Love's not time's fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle's compass come.
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out ev'n to the edge of doom.
             If this be error and upon me proved,
             I never writ, nor no man ever loved. (100)

To whom is the sonnet addressed? Abstracted from its place in Shakespeare's sequence, the poem appears at first to be addressed to no one, to the ether, to the world in general. The speaker casts his argument as objective, not personal at all, not "interested" in the narrow sense of the term. But restored to its context, the poem is thick with vested interest and personal agenda. Its very efforts at objectivity assume the resonance of psychological portraiture: the speaker is trying very hard to keep his world from falling apart, to contain the psychic and ontological entropy occasioned by the beloved's faithlessness. The audience is threefold: behind the general audience the sonnet purports to address, it conjures an audience of one, the faithless young man who must be argued into a loftier conception of love and thus a loftier mode of behavior. Behind the second person, who will always be as he is now, elusive, unpossessable, the sonnet conjures a listening self, to whom the speaking self proposes a "love" (an informing passion and also a philosophy of passion) that will compensate for all that his other "love" (the young man) refuses to be.

"Let me not": the poem begins with an exhortation, which, tellingly, makes the self the grammatical object, rather than the grammatical subject, of the verb. And yet the speaker seems both to envy and to emulate the declarative: delineating the allowable parameters of love, he aims for air-tight definition. I will not grant, the poet asserts, that love includes impediments. If it falters, it is not love. The love I have in mind is a beacon (a seamark or navigational guide to sailors); it is the north star. Like that star, it exceeds all narrow comprehension (its "worth's unknown"); its height alone (the navigator's basis for calculation) is sufficient to guide us. The poem's ideal is unwavering faith, and it purports to perform its own ideal. Odd then, isn't it, how much of the argument proceeds by means of negation: "Let me not," "Love is not," "O no," and so forth.

These negatives are clues: the poem has been written to refute certain concepts (alteration, removal) that it relegates to the realm of abstraction. The Kenyon Review, Spring 2006 But in the third quatrain, abstraction begins to break down. Time, it seems, has something to do with change and threatened removal. The poet argues back: time is paltry compared to love. Time may alter loveliness, but love will not flinch. Time may be measured in petty hours and weeks; love's only proper measure begins where time leaves off ("the edge of doom"). Quite apart from the continued heaping up of negation (two more "not's"), this quatrain registers increasing strain. Line ten (the ominous sickle) is all but unpronounceable: the consonants come fast and thick; the hissing alliterations deform the line as surely as time deforms the beauties of the flesh. "Doom" was capable of a neutral meaning in Shakespeare's day – it could refer to judgment of any sort, good or bad – but it was always a gloomy syllable, especially in the context of final judgment (again, "the edge of doom"). "Bears it out" rings with defiance, which ironically tends to direct the reader's attention to that which faith defies. That something else, that deliberately unnamed enemy to love has, in other words, begun to assume palpable presence. And what the poem has gained in forcefulness, it has lost in assurance. Quatrain by quatrain, line by line, despite, or rather by means of its brave resistance, the sonnet has been taken over by that which it has tried to write out of existence: by faithlessness.

The couplet represents a last, desperate attempt to regain control. It rests upon a sort of buried syllogism: I am obviously a writer (witness this poem!); I assert that love is constant; therefore love must be constant. As any logician could testify, however, these premises have no necessary relationship to their conclusion. The couplet is designed to shut down all opposition, to secure the thing (unchanging love) the poem has staked its heart on. It is sheer bravado and of course it fails. What fails as logical proof, however, succeeds quite brilliantly as poetry. The sonnet proposes and enacts a high-stakes rhetorical proposition: it aims to convince its layered audience, and thus to secure the metaphysical existence, of a love impervious to change. This rhetorical labor comes to constitute a portrait-in-action of the self under pressure, a self whose coherence depends upon the beloved's constancy and whose erotic doubts threaten dispersal. The rhetorical proposition progressively reveals itself to be suspended in thin air: even as the poet's eloquence swells to a climax, his grounding in confirmable reality disintegrates. The poem stages its own rhetorical undoing and, doing so, traces a powerful portrait of human longing.


The Latin rhetoric handbooks Shakespeare's contemporaries adapted for their own offer counsel on what the rhetor must be, or seem to be, how the speaker must construct a self of words in order to suggest a presence behind the words, a presence that secures the efficacy of words. From the perspective of rhetoric, meaning is the measurable consequence of eloquence, an effect or manipulable impression, as when one spirit contrives to subdue another, as in, I mean to make you mine. Rhetoric emphasizes the transitive aspects of linguistic production, the conspiracy of words with power. The power to mold opinion is an emanation of the speaker's person, or so the classical rhetoricians frankly posit: a thing is so because I who say it is so am a reliable person. And you are willing to believe what I say, or to behave as if you do, because the self you see in the mirror of my words, the space I invite you to inhabit as interlocutor, is a self, or a space, you like. Rhetoric invents its audience too.

The special innovation of lyricists in sixteenth-century England was to combine the flamboyant manipulations of rhetorical persuasion with the quasi-dramatic enactment of Petrarchan love-longing. In Wyatt, in Sidney, in Shakespeare, the speaker implicit behind the lyric is at once a technical virtuoso and a creature capable of linguistic self-betrayal. Idiosyncracies of phrasing, gaps in logic, ostensibly inadvertent lapses of proportion begin to be cultivated as symptoms of personality or clues to dissonant subtext. This turns the handbook premise against itself: rhetorical power is found to inhere not only in demonstrated mastery but also, paradoxically, in mastery's breakdown. The most compelling word is found to be the word that makes its own fallibility, and that of its speaker, most palpably felt.


Classical rhetoric is unashamedly ad hominem; it speaks "to the man" and "through the man" as well, constructing a self in language as an instrument of persuasion. The Petrarchan love lyric makes its address to the female beloved the occasion for masculine soul-making. But we are heirs to a powerful lineage of women who have raided and rebuilt what was once imagined to be a masculine preserve. Like Shakespeare's sonnet 116, the following lyric by Louise Bogan proceeds in the manner of a general argument, addressed to a general audience. Like Shakespeare's sonnet, it derives much of its momentum from the imperfect sustaining of that rhetorical proposition.


Women have no wilderness in them,
They are provident instead,
Content in the tight hot cell of their hearts
To eat dusty bread.

They do not see cattle cropping red winter grass,
They do not hear
Snow water going down under culverts
Shallow and clear.

They wait, when they should turn to journeys,
They stiffen, when they should bend.
They use against themselves that benevolence
To which no man is friend.

They cannot think of so many crops to a field
Or of clean wood cleft by an axe.
Their love is an eager meaninglessness
Too tense, or too lax.

They hear in every whisper that speaks to them
A shout and a cry.
As like as not, when they take life over their door-sills
They should let it go by. (19)

One of the immediate oddities of rhetorical contract in this poem, the-who-is-speaking-to-whom part, is the use of "they." This poem written by a woman speaks of women in the third person throughout, and speaks with considerable acerbity. Are we meant to imagine that no one is speaking? That the speaker is transparent? On the contrary. The speaker is too opinionated to be transparent; her charges are too harsh to seem to come from nowhere in particular. The rhetorical action that establishes itself from the outset of the poem, the conspicuous vocal self-portraiture, is that of a speaker who is expending a considerable amount of energy to distance herself from her sex. The rhetorical premise is ironic: doubling or dissembling. The very plainness of the poem's assertions are part of its irony. "Content in the tight hot cell of their hearts / To eat dusty bread." Is anyone "content" to eat dusty bread? A person may be doomed, by fate or character or temperament or inaptitude, to eat dusty bread, but content? We may be skeptical.

"They do not see cattle cropping red winter grass," though this line, written by one of "them," would seem to embody the gift of seeing in abundance, and also to induce it in others. "They cannot think of so many crops to a field / Or of clean wood cleft by an axe." We begin to move into the territory of assertion-contrary-to-palpable-fact, of self-negating assertion, on the order of "there are no oranges in this poem." To write of a thing is to think of a thing, and clean words cleft by consonance are as close as poetry comes to clean wood cleft by an axe.

So we inhabit an unfolding field of dramatic irony, not the kind where the audience knows something the character does not, but the kind in which the speaker herself stands as flat contradiction to that which the speaker is saying. But this particular irony – the self-evident negation of self – is only the more obvious, and the lesser, of two contractual ironies that govern the poem. What is this poem about? Well, under the rubric of "women," it works to distinguish two modes of being. The mode commended is outward-looking, risk-taking, open to the invitation of wilderness, to the sound of snow water, to the logic of husbandry and the exhilaration of work. The discommended mode is based on inwardness, on hoarding, and on love. Love: it is the woman's subject and woman's profession. (Bogan, writing during the ascendance of the novel, has willfully occluded those centuries in which love was the preserve of masculine lyric;) And lo, another irony. The poem on women written by a woman to exorcize and excoriate the feminine obsession with love progressively reveals itself to be: a poem obsessed with love. The speaker's revulsion against kindness (against both nurture or tenderness and likeness or kinship) reflects the harshness of her own entrapment.

Thus far we seem to have a modern instance of the self-consuming rhetoric-machine we found in Shakespeare's sonnet. But the rhetorical transaction in Bogan's poem has a very different arc, a very different tenor than that in Shakespeare's poem. The Kenyon Review, Spring 2006 If the first contractual irony has to do with the relation of real to pretended speaker, the second contractual irony has to do with the relation of real to pretended audience. Both Shakespeare's sonnet and Bogan's five quatrains simultaneously enact and discredit a rhetorical proposition in which they appear to be invested: love is by nature constant and true, women are by nature losers. But Shakespeare's poem stages the progressive disappearance of second-party audience: rhetorical contract breaks down because the partner in discourse refuses to hold up his end of things (the young man proves faithless; the world in general refuses to endorse the lover's fervid hopefulness by affording plausible evidence). Conversely, Bogan's poem stages the progressive appearance of a second-party audience, an audience of one, which emerges from the shadowy universal and undifferentiated audience the poem pretends to address. Who is this one? He is one who has been taken in over the doorsill, much to the speaker's regret. He is one hereby sent packing, as he ought to have been "let go" in the first place. The general disdain which has seemed for the length of the poem to be directed exclusively to the female sex here narrows to disdain of a complementary and very particular sort. The general you unveils in its midst a singular you who had better by now be singularly discomfited.


As in the poem by Louise Bogan, the space between the I and the you in William Meredith's sonnet "The Illiterate" is negotiated by means of the third person. But far from assuming the declamatory mode of demonstrative rhetoric, Meredith's speaker quietly introduces his third person within the structure of a simile. Except for its first six words, in fact, his poem is nothing but similitude, or metaphoric vehicle: the tail of a long-tailed simile.

The Illiterate

Touching your goodness, I am like a man
Who turns a letter over in his hand
And you might think this was because the hand
Was unfamiliar but, truth is, the man
Has never had a letter from anyone;
And now he is both afraid of what it means
And ashamed because he has no other means
To find out what it says than to ask someone.

His uncle could have left the farm to him,
Or his parents died before he sent them word,
Or the dark girl changed and want him for beloved.
Afraid and letter-proud, he keeps it with him.
What would you call his feeling for the words
That keep him rich and orphaned and beloved? (40)

Who speaks to whom here? A reticent I addresses one whose "goodness" he can only touch upon obliquely, being himself so unused to such goodness that its touch has come like a letter to the hand of one who cannot read. He professes himself inexpert, and yet he professes himself. Profession is indeed the primary business of his poem; it is the customary business of lyric poems and yet, for this persona, completely unaccustomed. The poem is a love poem; it performs the delicate ceremony of reciprocal acknowledgment; it is itself the epistolary response to an as-yet-unopened letter.

This sonnet was published in The Open Sea and Other Poems in 1958. Written in an era that was not so frank about homoerotic address as was Shakespeare's era, "The Illiterate" takes cover in obliquity. The beloved described in the poem, if minimally described, as a "dark girl," is a figure of speech, an analogy only, a surrogate for the beloved who is addressed in the second person, and whose gender therefore needn't be specified. The metaphorical beloved – the dark girl – may also be a delicate allusion to Shakespeare's dark lady, and thus a coded key to the primary passion – the homoerotic passion – in which the poem is grounded.

The love poem is also an ars poetica, written with the apparent simplicity of a primer. Look at the end rhymes: man, man, hand, hand, one, one, means, means, etc. These are not simply the most frontal rhymes available in English (overwhelmingly monosyllabic, scored on the downbeat): they are also identical rhymes. Some of them further enact the form of sonic-repetition-with-semantic-difference that the French call rime riche ("hand" in line two has a different meaning from the "hand" in line three). As the name suggests (rime riche), the rhyming deployment of homonyms has been admired as a kind of technical virtuosity in some literary cultures, but identical rhyme, especially in English, is generally looked down upon as a species of impoverishment, as though the poet were confessing, "I couldn't come up with anything else, so I've used the same word over again." The word always and only equal to itself: in the context of an ars poetica, these selfsame iterations insist upon the material, the iconic status of words, the status words must occupy for one to whom they do not habitually yield. The illiterate is a type of the poet because he cannot or will not make words disappear into easy instrumentality, will not take them for granted. And thus, in his hands, words do not lose their aura but gather into themselves a remarkable conjunction of powers and possibilities.

"Or his parents died before he sent them word." Word of what? Of his happy inheritance, of course; we can find no other plausible antecedent on the page. But if the unopened letter contains the news of his uncle's legacy, it cannot also be the letter informing the recipient of his parents' tragic death; line 10 is a non sequitur. It is, in fact, a wholly deliberate non sequitur, as confirmed by the conjunctions in the last line of the poem: not "or" but "and." Rich and orphaned and beloved. Having left the letter sealed, the illiterate has preserved all its possibilities; they have not narrowed down to one. As a figure for the lover, the man clings to the ignorant beginning of love, orphaned, yes, cut loose from all prior experience that might ground or protect him, and yet protected by his very ignorance, by the still-sealed letter, from the treacheries and diminutions that love may hold. As a figure for the poet, the man is rich in reverence, orphaned or unsponsored by the common, disregardful pragmatism of language use, and beloved as only the last believer shall be beloved.

And see what the poet has gained rhetorically. The last lines of the poem are spoken in the form of a question. When we speak in casual conversation about a "rhetorical question," we too often mean a dead question, a place holder, one whose answer is self-evident and whose purpose is at best to extract agreement from a silenced opposition. But that is to forget the full social contract that "rhetoric" always represents, the subtle play of power and consent, suggestion and reciprocity. I and successive generations of my students have spent many hours considering what the answer to the poet's question at the close of "The Illiterate" might be, and the only satisfactory answer we have ever been able to imagine is also the simplest: I call that feeling love. And see with what exquisite tact the poet has performed the ceremony of reciprocal declaration: speaking/not speaking the word himself, he has caused it to be spoken (if only silently) by the other, by the you, by the partner in feeling and discourse, by the one whose goodness has prompted the poem in the first place and now, in the act of reading, confirms it.


In an effort to speak with some specificity about rhetorical strategies within the lyric, I've considered a scant four poems, two from the Renaissance and two from the twentieth century, all of them widely read and deservedly famous. That these poems share a common subject or occasion (erotic love) is surely no coincidence, but neither is it intended to be restrictive. Erotic address usefully aggravates the tensions between self-interest and persuasion, veiling and revealing, but it has been in the present instance chiefly a way of narrowing the field for discussion, providing some commonality within which we may observe a spectrum of local practices: the love poem is merely an example. The formal and semantic resources I've tried to adduce – rhyme and enjambment, syntax and grammatical mood, figures of speech – might be pertinent in any number of contexts, but my present interest has been in the way they serve and articulate the dynamic I call rhetorical contract: the negotiated push and pull between the partners in utterance, the one who speaks (truly or deceitfully, fiercely or playfully, with single or with multiple intent) and the one who hears or reads. What I've hoped to suggest by foregrounding the transitive action of the lyric poem – those performed rhetorical contracts that are part of the fiction of the poem, and those too that are prompted by the fiction of the poem – is how rhetoric can be as malleable and capacious an instrument, and one as worthy of our attention, as any of the other formal resources of poetry.

Works Cited

Bogan, Louise. "Women." The Blue Estuaries. New York:
     Octagon Books, 1975. 19.
Herrick, Robert. "To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time."
     The Norton Anthology of Poetry, fifth ed. Ed. Margaret
     Ferguson, Mary Jo Salter, and Jon Stallworthy. New York
     and London: Norton, 2005. 357-58.
Marvell, Andrew. "To His Coy Mistress." The Norton Anthology
     of Poetry
, fifth ed. Ed. Margaret Ferguson, Mary Jo Salter,
     and Jon Stallworthy. New York and London: Norton, 2005. 478-79.
Meredith, William. "The Illiterate." Effort at Speech. Evanston:
     Triquarterly Books, 1997. 40.
Shakespeare, William. "Sonnet 116." Shakespeare's Sonnets.
     Ed. Stephen Booth. New Haven and London: Yale UP, 1977. 24-25.
Sidney, Sir Philip. "Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 63." The Poems of
     Sir Philip Sidney
. Ed. William A. Ringler, Jr. Oxford: Clarendon,
     1962. 196.

The Kenyon Review

Kenyon College

Editor: David H. Lynn
Managing Editor: Meg Galipault
Poetry Editor: David Baker
Fiction Editor: Nancy Zafris
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International Editor: John Kinsella

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Reproduced by Poetry Daily with permission.

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