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Arnold Klein

(Mal)apropos of Death’s Jest-Book

ISBRAND (to WOLFRAM): But how came you to die and yet be here?

That’s the question; and if it seems to be one we could hardly imagine asking in real life, that is only because the answer to it is so familiar that we never think to ask it there at all. That the same answer will do here, too, for Death’s Jest-Book—provided we take the question to refer, as its flat finality suggests it does, not just to a sidebar at the end of the poem where it occurs, but to the work as a whole—shows something about the real relation of this poem to experience (which its supernatural particulars seem to touch on not at all), and—so quickly are metaphysical principles implicated in discussions of the sort ahead—of poetry to truth, or—why not?—of art to life. I hope to tease out a little of that something in what follows, though it may be a while before I come to the answer to Isbrand’s question, and to one or two of my own that it raises, especially as I can’t promise to refrain from remonstrating with some commentators on the poem whose critical methods, principles and distinctions I think questionable in any case, but particularly malapposite in this one.

I suppose everyone has noticed how often the speakers (for there will prove to be good reasons for not calling them “characters,” at least not yet) in Death’s Jest-Book recur to reflection (Isbrand’s word) on mental faculties and psychical operations—will, soul, heart, wish, hope, memory, conscience, remorse, and most often (for this seems to be the term for which all these are co-ordinate synonyms) thought—others’, of course, but chiefly to their own—though, again, there will, or at least there may, prove to be good reasons not to rush into a distinction of one speaker’s thought and another’s, such as that way of putting it might suggest.

So far, so Romantic—and, indeed, Romanticism is one of the “contexts” in which some academic commentators (as one of them puts it) “frame” Death’s Jest-Book. But waiving the question of whether, or in what way, abstract entities such as “contexts” (or, for that matter, historical or critical categories such as Romanticism) actually exist, if we take the poem as coming to us as already having framed itself for receptive perception, as Dewey says all art works do, then we see at once that reflection receives a distinctive determination in Death’s Jest-Book, which it will be well to adumbrate a little before going on to adumbrate it a little further, which is all I hope to do.

Reflection, then, is determined in the poem as specular, in mirror images, as in the stars trembling in the trembling water, which Wolfram says he and Sybilla can go see; as echoic, in returning sounds, as in…well, as in the stars trembling in the trembling water, for the line occurs while he and Sybilla, as she puts it, converse (we will come back to this word); and as syntactic, in anadiplosis and related figures such as chiasm, as in (why not?) the stars trembling in the trembling water; and my point is, not just that in Death’s Jest-Book we are dealing with poetry, in which image, sound and syntax are continuously one, but that with this poem especially, but probably with any poem, distinctions—such as one academic draws between this poet’s lyric and dramatic poems, or such as the whole world draws between poem and poet—must be made provisorily, and for the purpose of seeing that unity better.

That line is of interest in another way: it shows that the state of the reflected thing is conditioned by the state of the thing that reflects it. Applied to thought, this means that, as Torwald says, our still-working wishes impress their meaning on the world, and not the other way around; that hope stamps its shape upon what it sees, as Ziba says his does, and not the other way around. Humans are soul-eyed, as Athulf puts it; and when their eyes, which are, as Melveric says his wife’s were, full of thoughts, look on the world, they behold their own thoughts imaged there, like Sybilla in the dewdrop. 

Now that (besides being a pretty good theory of metaphor in its own right) is why the language of Death’s Jest-Book is so densely metaphoric: not because the poet, in conformity with the practice of “the early Victorian stage,” “picked” the “archaic dialect” of the late Elizabethans for his “model,” instead of the “real speech” of his own era, as one (deservedly eminent) writer1 suggests, but because, as Melveric says, the human soul is hieroglyphic, that is, its alphabet is pictorial and significant at once (another good theory of metaphor, were it not the same one). And this conception of metaphor is wholly unlike the late Elizabethans’, despite the superficial resemblance their metaphorical density gives the two: for in their plays, the elements of the world have prior determinate meanings and values that are applied to attitudes and actions, whereas in Death’s Jest-Book the world has no meaning or value until the speaker impresses his own on it.

That all the speakers impress, or seem to impress, pretty much the same meaning and value on the world might have been what (mis)led another eminent writer2—in an essay that deserves, however, to be less well-known than it is—to suppose that in Death’s Jest-Book, as in all his writings, the poet “is trying to make a point about death. But death in Death’s Jest-Book is not an objective phenomenon “about” which points are to be made, but one more shape the mind stamps on an indeterminate world; if there is any “about” about it, it is rather that in Death’s Jest-Book death is making a point about the mind. But of course there is no “about” about it, no such diremption (in reflection) of subject and object, or, for that matter (in expression, as we will see) of a poem and its “point,” as the “about” relation presumes and projects, and then complains of not finding; and of course, “making a point” (never mind “trying” to make one) is not what the poet is doing anyway.

But hieroglyphs are, besides pictures, words; and impressions and stamps3 have their verbal correlates in echoes and re-echoes. In poetry, Melveric says, the soul speaks in every word, and the mind (great-eared, in Isbrand’s magical phrase) listens and replies (another word we will come back to); and, so determined, interlocution occurs indifferently whether the speaker is alone or in company, is talking to himself or to another. Soliloquies in Death’s Jest-Book accordingly tend to be, or to become, colloquies, the soliloquist often enough addressing his own thoughts as if they were someone else’s, or even someone else he is rebutting—O thoughts, What, my heart, Hence thoughts—and himself, as if he actually were someone else, as when the solitary Isbrand, right before vaunting himself on how alone he is, apostrophizes Brutus, and Wolfram (in an aside) remonstrates with Snake Death for having spoken the words that he himself just spoke; and in the same way, and for the same reason, dialogues tend to be, or to become, monologues. But to see how that happens we will have to persist in our ad hoc distinction of image, sound and syntax a little longer.

Thoughts shift by the minute in Death’s Jest-Book, as Melveric and Athulf declare; and as thoughts shift, metaphors change. But they do so as hieroglyphs do, by succeeding one another discretely, and not, as in that arch–late Elizabethan, Shakespeare, by transforming one into the next: as Torwald says, wishes are still-working—still (an adjective that comes up a lot in this poem) in their discontinuity, working in their succession. But that hyphen is significant, too: for the discontinuous metaphors succeed one another according to a pattern that connects them: our old friend, reflection. The same thought, or, hieroglyphically put, the same figure, and often enough the same words, come back to the speaker, reversed. Thoughts are, in Melveric’s words, folded: the succeeding thought replies—re-plies—to the prior thought, and this, whether the thought is the speaker’s own or an interlocutor’s. Thus Isbrand follows his own exquisite What is the nightbird’s tune wherewith she startles the bee with What is the lobster’s tune when he is boiled (the sort of reversal the poem calls satirical, a term we will save for later consideration); thus Sybilla, while retaining all his terms, re-plies with the converse—the con-verse—of all of Wolfram’s proposals. And in general, it is remarkable—but, thanks to the intimate relation between any thought and its reflex, easily overlooked—how often the interlocutors in Death’s Jest-Book rebut one another (or themselves, as Athulf is continually doing); and courting a reply is often enough the only reason for speaking at the length they sometimes do; at least, there is no reason for it, plot- or characterization-wise (and we will return to this too). 

The succession of discrete metaphors naturally takes the syntactic form of parataxis, or something pretty close to it. Each picture, be it a detail of the preceding one, or an entirely new one, is (typically) given its own clause and joined to its antecedent by simple apposition or by an “and”; and as clausally distinct pictures follow one another, the syntactic burden tends to fall on adjectives and nouns, and not (as, again, in Shakespeare) on verbs. Such metaphors are not so much extended—are not conceits, no less late- Elizabethan ones, as has sometimes been charged—as they are continued; and as one speaker continues another’s thought, and by the same principle of reflection as each speaker continues his own, dialogue tends to become monologic.

Which raises the question: who’s speaking?

Notice that reflection, so determined, is not assigned to specific speakers as a characteristic they come to the play already possessing (as, say, an Elizabethan or Jacobean “humor”), nor as a characteristic they acquire (à la Middleton and Ford) through suffering an inner change (two good reasons for not thinking of them as “characters,” or as borrowed figures in a “pastiche”). Nor does it inform specific episodes only, or develop through their sequence to a climax: rather, it is a factor that operates globally, and is determined independently of—or at least, is not determined by—those two mainstays of the dramatic stage  (early Victorian, late Elizabethan or otherwise), character and plot; if anything, it determines these other factors, as I suggested a moment ago. Nor are the metaphors through which reflection is chiefly carried on merely local or occasional: rather, they transact with one another globally through a particular possibility of metaphoric language as such, namely, transitivity—a resource whereby two metaphors, having no terms in common, are intricated with each other (transaction “at a distance,” as the physicists might say) though a mediating metaphor that shares terms with both, while each itself at the same time, and in the same way, mediates others. Thus feathery bee is intricated with arrow-showers through the sweet sins that feather Cupid’s shafts; and through arrow-showers with the first drops of Noah’s world-washing shower; and through drops…and through Noah…and through Cupid…and through sweet…and so on. Or vice versa; and permutatim; for the total complexus of intrications thus formed is independent, not only of speakers, for it implicates them all equally, but of plot, for it refers backwards and forwards simultaneously. And though the complexus is exponentially intricated, and for that reason is likely to seem impossibly so (“could anyone make such a thing?”—but that’s a question about the poet, not the poem), it is nonetheless wholly specified by the finite set of terms that are its several nodes.

Wholly specified: for as a possibility of metaphoric language as such, transitive metaphor is generated or appropriated (it doesn’t matter which) for each poem whose essential expressive mode it necessarily is. It is not a period style—certainly not that period’s style: for while a few of the nodes of Death’s Jest-Book’s complexus may belong to the common fund, so to call it, of Romanticism (to dispose of that “frame”), as caves and nightingales may be said to do, the significance even of those two is determined by their place and function in Death’s Jest-Book’s total complexus only. Nor is transitive metaphor a manner to be “revived and ventriloquized,” as some academics assume of the poem’s other stylistic features, still less a “vocabulary” to be arbitrarily (i.e., mistakenly) “picked,” as our first writer should have known better (and elsewhere shows that he did know better) than to suggest. And to have done (almost) once and for all with “archaism”: there is nothing characteristically Elizabethan or Jacobean about transitive metaphor either. The metaphors in any Shakespeare play, though apposite and coherent, do not form a complexus: the images vary (largely) independently of one another and are, what they are usually taken to be, veritable themes.4 The Revenger’s Tragedy may, indeed, recall Death’s Jest-Book, in that its metaphors, although not intricated one with another, all do transact through a central hub—the “vicious minute”—as all of Death’s Jest-Book’s metaphors may seem to do through death; but so might they, by the same process of intrication, be seen to transact through mermaids or crocodiles, or any other node of its peculiar complexus. In real life, of course, death is a more urgent concern for most of us than mermaids; but once we remit the prejudice that poems are “about” real life, in the simple sense of “about,” and in the even simpler sense of “real life,” there is no reason to expect our practical valuation of things to govern terms whose entire significance derives from, and consists in, their reciprocal pertinence one to another. But The White Devil’s metaphors are transitive, as anyone can see who bothers to count the transitions from (to) glassen hammers to (from) the fowl coffin’d in baked meat (one, actually), and do operate independently of character and plot; but the terms of its complexus are not in any way continuous with Death’s Jest-Book’s, and for very good reasons, as we will see; and though the earlier poem—and not just that one—does come into the later one, it does so in a way that renders history irrelevant.

In both plays transitive metaphor articulates a reality of which the personages could not be, or become, aware if they are to participate, or continue to participate, in the action. In The White Devil this reality is the fact that all conventional forms of wealth, rank, beauty, and so forth, are transitory and illusory accidents of eternally enduring Democritean atomies, into which they will all ultimately (and for the characters, shortly) disperse (hence the terms that specify its complexus are all conversant about loss of form); but these feign’d shadows (of real substance) are precisely what the characters (themselves feign’d shadows) are in desperate pursuit of throughout the play, which could not even start, no less go on, were any of them to become cognizant of what a few (not all) of them do come to realize at the point of death (which in this play means something like real irreversible dissolution), namely, the no-thing-ness of their objects and themselves. But in Death’s Jest-Book the ultimate, indeed the sole, reality is reflection, self-awareness (hence the importance in its complexus of double things such as mermaids), of which all the speakers are aware, and never stop being so—even Athulf’s (self-knowingly self-pitying) praise of unconsciousness is prefaced with a Methinks; but what they are not aware of—nor could they be—is the subjective self-awareness expressed globally in the poem as a whole; and this includes a factor that, although intrinsically dramatic, is completely incompatible with their dramatic function.

That factor is awareness of the poem’s relation to Elizabethan and Jacobean dramatic poetry.

This is not “archaism,” though it seems to be continually mistaken for it. Nor is it “influence,” a term that was borrowed from the astrologers and may be returned to them without any loss to art. Awareness of any relation, though awareness of a relation, is nonetheless, from the point of view of consciousness, “a direct experience, a sensible fact,” as Santayana says—that is, is an awareness; that one of the terms in the relation happens to be historically past does not in any way make that term any less immediately present to the consciousness to which it is present; and when it is so present, it is both dead—and gone (that scurvy burthen to this ballad of life)—and yet here, the same way that in everyday life every memory is, or any absent thing whatsoever is when recalled; and the answer to Isbrand’s question is: as “a peculiar complication of present consciousness.”

And the same answer goes for the who-is-speaking question, too: just as the local dialogues in the poem merge into monologues, so all of them together form one monologue that expresses the complications present to the consciousness of the poet, of which the poem as a whole is the conscious expression; and insofar as one voice is speaking throughout, Death’s Jest-Book is a lyric poem (but not, on that account, a bad drama, as has sometimes been said, as we will see).

I put the relation of poet and poem in the form of a reflexivity on the metaphysical principle—which you may take or leave—that a thought is reflexively identical with its (adequate) expression. We may say that the poet’s (in this case complex and sustained) state of mind is expressed in the poem, if we like; with the proviso, however, that, as its expression is, so is that mind present to us, and is, though dead and gone in one sense, still with us here and now; we need not, that is, having used the word “poet,” discover ourselves to have matriculated in the academy of “Beddoes studies,” and go off “framing” the poor man in what one professor in that school calls the “many contexts” to which he is “relevant” (nor even the other way around). But we must not say, along the lines of our second writer, that the expression of that state of mind is the “point” of the poem, since the expression is the poem, so it and its “point” are the same thing (so there really is no “about” about it). Nor may we ask, with our first writer, whether the “effectiveness” of Death’s Jest-Book would have been greater had the poet used (to repeat), not the language of the “early Victorian stage,” which “had no existence in the life of his era,” but “a real speech,” not only because the stage is part of the life of an era—as is, for that matter, a poet’s speech, which is, for that matter, also (even in the naïve sense) real—nor because the question itself is meaningless, for had the poem’s language been different, so would the poem have been, and there would be no Death’s Jest-Book as we have it to compare the hypothetical one to, or vice versa; but because, of Death’s Jest-Book pre-eminently, though really of any poem, the only question to ask is, is the mind expressed in the poem realized in its language or not?—and if it is, then that language is real, in the only way that language ever is, namely, as expression; for really, it is only by a (characteristically American) metaphysical prejudice that judges some conscious experiences, particularly experiences of art, to be somehow less present to consciousness, or less deserving of being so, than experiences of “real life,” that the language that expresses such experience is compared invidiously to “a real speech.”

Now, if we scale up, so to speak, from the dialogic monologues and the monologic dialogues we noted earlier, to the poem as a whole, we arrive at the chief characteristic of the mind there expressed: self-reversal; that is, our old friend, reflection. It (the poem or the mind, taken as expression it doesn’t matter which) requires for its completion at any point two moments, as in the two stanzas of the first dirge; or two parts, as in the female and male choruses of the wedding song; or two movements, as in the alternation within scenes and between them of masque and antimasque; or two registers, somber and satirical, as in the relation of the wedding song to Isbrand’s song of the aborted fetus5; and finally (finally!) two existential modes, Tragedy and Folly, the last pair reflected appositively within the poem’s title, and chiastically, between its title and subtitle: and insofar as the one voice lyrically expressing itself requires two voices to do so, Death’s Jest-Book, or The Fool’s Tragedy is a drama, though perhaps a very particular one, and the academics’ pother about which genre (a non-existent abstract entity in the first place) it belongs to—revenge tragedy, closet drama, etc.—rests on distinctions wholly malapposite to it.

Now, the fact that tragedy here is as necessary to its complement, folly, as its complement is to it, lets us answer a question that perhaps no one would have thought to ask had I not obtruded it, namely, why don’t the self-aware speakers share the global self-awareness of the whole poem, one factor of which we saw was the self-awareness of its relation to earlier dramatic poetry? Well, because tragedy requires personages to enact it, and in this poem, where its specific complement is folly, to enact it seriously; and this the speakers could not do, were they aware that they were participating in a play, and that play in an artistic tradition; for if they were so aware, or became so, their participation would be satirical only, and so would violate the poem’s own principle of unity.

[1] Who is—as poets tend to do in their criticism—writing about his own poetry.

[2] Who is—as poets tend to do…

[3] And paintings, and images, and miniatures and symbols and likenesses…

[4] As are caverns and birds in our poet’s contemporary hero, Shelley.

[5] And (need I say?) two—what should we call them?—states? Topics? Rubrics? Poles?—life and death.