University of Echahid Hamma Lakhdar- Eloued- Algeria
Journal of Arabic Language and Literatures
Academic biannual periodical court specialized issued by Faculty of Language and arts.
ISSN-1112-914X/ EISSN 2602-716X
IMAGES OF ‘LONELINESS’ IN EDGAR ALLAN POE’S POEMS
A SEMIOTIC STUDY
Dr. Mega Afaf
The application of semiotic theories in the analysis of literature can noticeably be seen in novels, short stories and drama, but this is not frequently in poetry. The investigation of poetry using semiotics is still under shadows even if we have depicted some researches in the field. Therefore, we agree with Sahraee(2017) who thinks that highlighting the semiotic analysis of poetry has to be considered due to the difficulty in getting the right meaning of the signs that one encounters while reading poetry. We also go in line with Barry (1999) who sees that the semiotics of poetry is not widely used. To him, since poetry uses natural language, it will be open to semiotic theories too.
Poems as a particular literary genre share, in general,common features like symbols and connotations which makes semiotics adequate for a better interpretation of poetry (Permana, 2019). In general, semiotics focuses on the study of “ anything that stands for something else” (Chandler, 2007, p. 02). For Chandler, the sign can be a word, an image, a sound, a gesture or an object. Similarly, Umberto Eco (1976) sees that semiotics “is concerned with everything that can be taken as a sign. A sign is everything which can be taken as significantly substituting for semething else”(p. 07). And for De Saussure, the linguistic signs words and morphemes; they form a combination of a signifier, i.e, form, and a signified, i.e, the meaning. When we relate the right meanings to the forms, that is the right signified to the right signifier we get the right interpretation (Shahraee, 2017).
As the science of signs, semiotics “ is concerned with the complete signifying system of a text and the codes and conventions we need to understand in order to be able to read it” (Cuddon, 1999, p. 805).
In general, literary semiotics has developed from being systematic and formalistic with Propp, and Greimas to being less sytematic with late semioticians like Bakhtin, Barthes, Lotman and Eco, and this had its wide effects on the analysis of the literary texts.
However, in connecting poetry with semiotics, it is noteworthy to mention the French literary critic and theoristRiffaterre (1924-2006) who can be considered as the best representative figure in approaching poetry using semiotics. He is well known for his book Semiotics of Poetry (1978) and his semiotic literary theory. For him, poetry is distinguished from prose by its particular mode of signification embodied in accumulation, descriptive systems and neologisms. (Prud’homme and Guilbert, 2019).
The Importance of the Study
This research paper attempts to invest some of the concepts of the ItaliansemioticianEco (1932-2016) in his theory of textual interpretation. His approach is a mixture between semiotics and literary theory. In fact, applying the concepts of Eco in the interpretation of poetry has not been dealt with before. In this perspective, this paper aims to reveal how semiotics can clarify the mechanisms of the concept of ‘loneliness’ in Poe’s poetry in order to come up with exhaustive meanings and images. At the same time, we hope to pave the way for more pratical contributions of semiotics to the analysis of poetry.
As a case study, we have chosen to analyse some poems written by the American writer, poet and literary critic Edgar Allan Poe.The recurrent occurrence of the term/sign ‘loneliness’ in many of his poems has attracted our attention and lead us to raise the following questions about the nature of this loneliness. is this issue an obsession, or a feeling that had resulted from the deceptions in his life, or is it the requirement of the work of art at hand, or a theme in itself ?The poems in question are taken from Poe’s collection The Raven and Other Selected Poems (2016). These includeThe Raven (1845), Spirits of the Dead (1827),The Lake (1827), Alone (1829),The Valley of Unrest (1831), and Dream-Land (1844). For this reason, in order to have a close view about the various meanings of loneliness, we will conduct our study on the basis of some of Eco’s concepts embodied in : the intention of the writer; connotation; topics and isotopies and Model Q. These concepts will be fully elaborated during the analysis.
For about a century, the poetry of Poe remains powerful and attracts the attention of the literary scholarsthroughtout the world due to its distinctiveness either in form or theme. Mystery, darkness, uniqueness,nature, beauty, sadness and love are the most features of this poetry. Thus, it is obvious to see a tremendous literature written to review his poems. However, approching Poe on the basis of a semiotic approach remains quite restricted. In this regard, we find the researches which attempted to apply semiotics on Poe’s poetry specultative and superficial. For example,Sahlani (2019) tried to analyse three of Poe’s poems using a semiotic analysis. These poems are ‘The Valley of Unrest’,‘Alone’, ‘Romance’, ‘To Helen and Silence’. In his paper, the author tries to analyse the use of symbols in these poems. But what has called our attention in his analysis is the confirmation of the atheism of Poe just because he used the word ‘demon’ in the last lines of his poem ‘Alone’. For the author, this implies Poe’s rebellion against God’s doctrine which we do not share with him. This is because without any strong support or argument from the poem the critic bases his interpretation on the words which Poe once wrote:
“The idea of God, infinity or spirit stands for the possible attempt at an impossible conception”(p. 39).
On her part, Balan (2015) wrote a paper in which she reviews the semiology of De Saussure and his dichotomy of the linguistic sign of the signifier and the signified. About Charles Sanders Pierce’s semiotics, the author presents his model of the language system which consists of three parts ; index, icon and symbol. In her paper, the author tries to unfold the deep levels of meaning in Poe’s poem ‘The Raven’. Again, after reading this paper, we cannot be convinced by the author’s way of interpreting the raven which visited the narrator in his chamber. The author refers to Zoosemiotics(which studies the communicative behaviour of animals) in order to explain the words of the raven. At this point, we cannot agree with the critic because we think that the raven was not speaking at all, and the word ‘Nevermore’ which the narrator attributes to the raven comes only out of his imagination because of his depressed mood. Nevertheless, the author has succeeded to bring about the various connotations which the raven, as an animal, implies, namely: sadness, loneliness, grief, death, nostaligia, darkness and glomminess.
For this reason, our study seeks to empower and invest in the field of semiotics for the analysis of poetry with more methodological and practical tools.
In this research, our case of study includes Poe’s Selected Poems which will be studied on the light of Eco’s concepts of theory of the textual interpretation. Adopting a quantitative and analytic methodology, the poems will be analysed with the support of the available data, literatures and reviews.
Due to the constant presence of ‘loneliness’ in many of Edgar Allan Poe’s poems, we try to answer the following research questions:
1-How is the concept of loneliness manifested in many of Poe’s Poems ?
2-How can semiotics help in the interpretation of the signs in poetry?
Following the questions we have previously asked, this paper hypothesizes that the use of the concept of ‘loneliness’ in many of Poe’s Poems takes many perspectives. Its use goes beyond its literal meaning. As an adjective or as a noun, ‘loneliness’, ‘lone’ or ‘solitude’ can mirror the feelings of isolation felt within the poet himself, as it can function to personify some elements of nature, or sometimes to add to the melancholic tone of the poem. Furthermore, with the tools of semiotics we would come to a more elucidation on the function and the different connotationsof ‘loneliness’.
We try in this part of the research to analyse in depth how Edgar Allan Poe represented the concept of loneliness in his poems on the light of Umberto Eco’s concepts or tools of textual interpretation.
3.1-The Intention of the Writer
In Eco’s theory, the production and interpretation of a text considers the interaction of the author, the text and the reader. That is, in the reading process, we consider the intention of the writer, the intention of the text and the intention of the reader. (Capozzi, 1999).
For the intention of the writer, it exists in the text through the author’s textual and linguistic strategies which Eco refers to as the Model Author(Capozzi, 1999). In addition, it also embodies the writer’s autobiography, his sociocultural context, political and historical context that are in some way present and reflected in the text (Ceasar, 1999).
In this research, our recourse to Poe’s life is due to the parallel that we are able to trace between his miserable life and his constant recurrence of ‘loneliness’ in his poems.
While reading about the life of Poe (1809- 1849), we find in parallel to his successful works which still tempt scholars to read, teach or study, a dark shadowy and even melancholic life of a man who had been orphan at a very early age,i.e, the age of three years. After the death of his parents, he moved to live with his foster father and his wife in Virginia (Swarnakar, 2019). He left the university after one year because his foster father did not pay him his gambling debts. After his enrollment in the US army, he moved to live in Maryland with his aunt Maria Clemm and her daughter Virgia whom he married when she 13. He bagan to sell stories to magazines and worked for many years as an editor for a number of literay journals (poets.org, 2019). In the end, he died alone in a hospital without any relatives or friends (Swarnakar, 2019).
However, his works are reknownedworldwild.He is very known by his short stories of terror, and death (Swarkankar, 2019). He was an anthor, a poet and a literary critic. He was a distinguished figure of the romantic movement whose works are highly imaginative and featured by mystery and macabre (Balan, 2015) “ Poe’s work is usually described as ‘Gothic’ in style, as he alludes to the macabre, grotesque and horrifying” (Collins classics, 2016, p. v).Scholars even think that the dark and gloomy words he used in his works were only a reflection of the inner conflicts which he witnessed in his youth (Balan, 2015).In fact, he lived a difficult life with dilemmas, poverty, diseases and deaths, in addition to his drug and alcohol abuse which caused his behavioral disorders especially after the death of his wife (HelioAfonso et al, 2019). Furthermore,because of his drug and alcohol abuse he became diagnosed of congestion of the brain and Wernicke’s encephalopathy which caused him behaviouralinstability with episodes of depression and hallucinatory symptoms a fact that made critics establish the connection between his personal psychological situation and his works. Indeed, in this regard, many works by Poe are depicted where he refers to epileptic seizure such as works as; in The Pit and the Pendulum,Berenice and the Sphinx, The Fall of the House of Usher, The Business Man, and A Tale of the Ragged Mountains (HelioAfonso et al, 2019).
Therefore, it has become quite understandable to read so many melancholic poems written by Poe. Hayes (2014) states that Poe had witnessed so many deaths in his life like the death of his mother, his wife, his brother Henry, surrogate mother, and the death of his forster mother Frances Allen. These many losses had their impact to make him feel lonely and express his emotions through his writings by creating different images on loneliness.
3.2-The Different Figures of ‘Loneliness’ in Poe’s Poems
We have depicted that loneliness as a theme or as a metaphor is present in the following poems: The Raven, The Spirits of the Dead, The Lake, Alone, The Valley of Unrest, and Dream Land. They are part of the collection of Poe’s short stories The Raven and Other Selected Poem. In this part, we aim to analyse the function and images of ‘Loneliness’ in these poems using some of Eco’s tools.
A scholar was sitting alone in his chamber mourning an unreasonable sorrow for the loss of his beloved Lenore. Suddenly a tapping on his chamber door broke his solitude, it was a raven with which he engaged in an imaginary conversation. In the end, the narrator died alone on the floor of his chamber. In this distinguished and beautiful poem, ‘loneliness’ is conveyed in a variety of ways :
Through the narrator’s self-conversation in the first, the third and the sixth stanzas ; for example, when the narrator first heard the tapping he said to himself in the first stanzas:
“Tis some visitor”, I muttered,“tapping at my chamber door-
Only this and nothing more” (p. 03).
Or in the third stanza :
“So that now, to still the beating of my heart, I stood repeating
‘Tis some visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door-
Some late visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door ;-
This it is and nothing more.’” (p:04).
This ‘loneliness’ is expressed indirectly through putting the narrator in a particular situation, i.e, talking to himself, and then we, as readers, may feel this lonely atmosphere.
Also, this lonely atmosphere is approved in stanza 17, when the raven kept repeating the sign ‘Nevermore’ and the narrator answered him desparately :
“Leave my loneliness unbroken !-quit the bust above my door” (p. 08).This would confirm our previous interpretation.
In addition to this, the poet’s use of particular signs connotes loneliness like in the first stanza:
“Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore-..” Here, the narrator was reading and reflecting (‘pondered’ ‘volume of forgotten lore’), i.e, two actions that mostly are performed individually.
Or, in the fifth stanza:
“And the only wordthere spoken was the whispered word, ‘Lenore’ !
This I whispered, and an echo murmured back the word, ‘Lenore’ !” (p. 04).
It is common that only in silence and loneliness that words do echo.
According to Eco (1979), considering the narrative structure of a literary text is indispensable in the analysis. The narrative structures can embody the analysis of characters and their actions, point of view, plot structure, possibles worlds, stylistic features, rhetoric, ideologies…
In The Raven, we depict the tone (which refers to the poet’s attitude towards his subject) as a strong feature enabling the poet to boost his feelings of loneliness expressed through his particular diction or signs like: darkness, ebony, stillness, night, bleak December. These gloomy words serve as a context to stregthen the idea that the narrator’s loneliness is something sad and not positive. In addition,this sad atmosphere of loneliness is transmitted to the reader by the use of the first person narrator, so that the reader will share with him the emotions of his sorrowful experience, and thus, the impact will be stronger. Therefore, the tone of this poem is so melocholic since the narrator is in an exaggerated sorrow due to the loss of his beloved. But this loneliness is terrifying, it added to his moral degradation and his agony since he went into an imaginary conversation with the raven and imagined it saying ‘Nevermore’ many times.
3.2.2 –The Spirits of the Dead
The image of loneliness in this poem is expressed through paradox as a stylistic feature. That is we find contradicting statements about the solitude. In the first stanza Poe refers to loneliness by the word ‘lone’, an adjective. So taking into account the amalgamations following this sign, the word ‘alone’ takes a further attribute,i.e, it is a fearful loneliness since the person he is addressing is in a state of having lost someone and thus, “ dark thoughts” will haunt him :
“Thy soul shall find itself alone,
‘Mid dark thoughts of the grey tombstone…”(p.23).
However, in the second stanza, the loneliness takes the opposite connotation, it is not a fearful loneliness since the spirit of the dead will come back again to life and accompany the person in loss. So it is a solitude with the company of the spirit of the dead:
“Be silent in that solitude
Which is not loneliness-for then
The spirits of the dead who stood
In life before thee are again
In death arround thee-and their will
Shall overshadow thee : be still » (second stanza, p. 23).
Like in the previous poem, the connotations of ‘loneliness’ ranges among a variety of meanings ; between beauty, terror, reassurance and death. These various images are expressed at the level of the narrative structure of the poem through the various images. In the first stanza, we read the image of a lonely lake which inspires beauty :
“So lovely was the loneliness
Of a wild lake, with black rock bound,
And the tall pines that towered around”(p.35).
The amalgamations which follow the sign ‘loneliness’ create a positive visual imagery. The objects described call into the mind of the reader their colours which the reader imagines. There is a lake which we guess is blue, ‘black rock’ and ‘tall pines’ and these pines are obviously green. This beautiful image of the lone lake is intensified through the sign ‘wild’that also needs a particular focus and interpretation.
Here, we see the adequate tool to interpret the sign ‘wild’ is the Model Q. Eco (1976) adopts this model because it best represents the variety of interpretants that the sign evokes in one’s mind.
The Model Q relies on the relation between the sign and its interpretant, Eco (2014) states that it can be a relation of synonymy p≡q, or a relation of inference pבq. For the interpretant is the information that the sign evokes in the mind of the addressee which itself is a sign which evokes another interpretant which again will evoke another sign in an infinite way. This is what is called in Peirce’s semiotics ‘unlimited semiosis’(Eco, 1979). As the interpretant can be a linguistic sign, it can also be an object, a colour, a feeling,…(ibid). That is any other sign that comes into one’s mind. Therefore, this kind of encyclopedic knowledge is best represented through Model Q which is structured in the form of interconnected nodes. For each sign (lexeme) there is the first meaning which is called Type A, this Type A has its interpretant which is called aToken. Then each Token will turn into Type B which will generate other Tokens, which themselves are also Tokens for Type A in an infinite way (Eco, 1976). In the light of this, the sign ‘wild’ can be interpreted as follows :
Uninhabited nature human
Untouched animals plants behaviour
Savage pure fearful
Fig01: The MQ of the Sign ‘Wild’.
These various connotations of ‘wild’ that are evoked in this tree: uninhabited, savage, untouched, pure …evoke mystery that adds to the charm of the lake. Moreover, as a romantic writer, this beautiful image of the lone lake could be read as a mirror of the feeling of isolation which the poet felt within himself and nature description comes as the best tool to convey such emotion.
From mystery and beauty in the first stanza, we come to feelings of terror in the second stanza when at night, the narrator is terrified as such the loneliness of the lake turns to be terrifying too:
“But when the night had thrown her pall
Then-ah, then, I would awake
To the terror of the lone lake”(second stanza, p. 35).
In the third stanza, Poe creates a paradox. There is an opposite impression contrary to what has been conveyed before about the lonely lake :
“But that terror was not fright,
But a tremulous delight-…”(p. 35).
This lake is in fact not frightful, as if for a moment, the narrator wants to make a pause within these contradicting emotions in order to strengthen the following impact and the shock on the reader in the last stanza where the isotopy of the theme of death like, death, poisonous, dim and grave which characterizes this lake. In front of this shocking image of the lake, Poe, at the same time, changes the point of view from the first person narrator to the third person narrator. We think that this change in point of view has taken place on purpose in order to detach and distance the reader from the shocking image of the deadly lake in this hand. On the other hand, in this last stanza, the poet calls for imagination as a means to escape from the feelings of solitude and deathlike images in order to comfort his soul from the deathlike image of the lake:
“For him who thence could solace bring
To his lone imagining-
Whose solitary soul could make
An Eden of that dim lake”(Stanza 04, p.36).
In these last lines, there is the idea of escapism which is a feature of the romantic movement. That is through imagination, the person would escape from life’s pressures to nature. So, this last stanza approves our perception that qualifying the lake as being lonely is only a reflection of the loneliness felt within the narrator :
“To his solitary imagining-
Whose solitary soul could make…”(p.36).
In ‘Alone’, we read strong feelings of loneliness conveyed by the narrator which the reader shares with him because of the use of the first person point of view. The point of view as a narrative structure has mostly the function to limit the view of the reader to what the narrator thinks and feels and thus the impact becomes stronger on the reader. In this narrative poem, we read a narrator who describes himself distinctly and differently from his mates and this had its effect on leading him into solitude and withdrawal from life and thus misses its enjoyment. So at the beginning, there is a comparison as we read :
“From childhood’s hour I have not been
As others were-I have not seen
As others saw-I could not bring
And all I loved- I loved alone..”(p:51)
Then, in the subsequent lines, we see how his distinctiveness led him to draw from life:
“Thou-in my childhood- in the dawn
Of a most stormy life-was drawn
From every depth of good and ill”(p.51).
By calling back the intention of the writer, we can guess that Poe is referring to his own sad life. So, we can say that this is a personal experience of loneliness.
3.2.5-The Valley of Unrest
The feelings and images of loneliness still accompany Poe in the ‘Valley of Unrest’ where the people have deserted the vally to go to war, and thus there remains no one to look after the flowers only the stars. Here, the poet has personified the stars and charged them with a human duty. This personification has the function to add and stress the loneliness of the valley and to transfere these impressions to the reader :
“Trusting to mild-eyed stars,
Nightly, from their azure towers,
To keep watch above the flowers,”(p. 76).
However, inspite of its loneliness, the valley is not at rest. Here, the sound of the wind and “the airs” combined with the lonely valley come together to create a special solitude, i.e, it is “ magic solitude”. In order to become closer to the interpretation of this particular sign “magic” we will use Eco’s Model Q which will enable us to deconstruct the possible connotations of this sign.
Charming joyous mysterious
cunning elusive fearful
Fig02: The MQ of the Sign ‘Magic’
These various connotations suggest how ‘solitude’ which is an abstract word becomes something important to consider. That is, this solitde which might be charming and seductive can at the same time be mysterious and fearful or elusive as well. There are contradictory sensations. Or we can say that it is a kind of solitude which is beyond description.
Moreover, this solitary unrestful valley is also sad. The topic of death comes to close the last lines of the poem expressed through a linguistic feature called isotopy. For Eco (1984), an isotopy is the repetition of a basic meaning trait which can be semantic, phonetic, prosodic, enunciative, rhetorical, presuppositional, stylistic, syntactic or narrative.
The isotopy helps in determining the topic when it is not clearly stated in the text, and sometimes, from the explicit topic, the critic can depict the related isotopies. They justify the reader’s hypotheses (Eco, 1979).
In this regard, the isotopies that refer to the topic of death are : ‘weep, grave, weep (again), tears’; for example: “Over the lilies that wave
And weep above a nameless grave !” (p. 77).
As a conclusion, this poem depicts a very melancholic image of nature. In fact, it is within the tenets of romanticism to consider nature as a mirror to the human soul. In this regard, recalling the tragic life of Poe, it is quite acceptable to suggest that the poem may be a metaphor of his state of mind. So nature description, in this poem is a means to convey his melancholic feelings.
In this poem, Poe depicts the image of a lonely land that is unidentified “ Out of Space-out of Time” (p.96). This has the effect to detach the reader from his present reality and thus add mystery to his poem. In this poem, we have a traveller who came to this land at night, and thus, from the beginning, in the first stanza, the poet is setting a dark tone conveyed through his particular diction like : ‘obscure, ill, lonely, black, dim’. Like this, we see that Poe is setting the reader in a particular imaginary place that is also dark and fearful.
This dark impression we had in the first stanza is confirmed in the following stanza. In this part, Poe focuses on the description of nature. He creates a visual imagery which conveys a distinguished land that suggests indefiniteness, formlessness, loss, and thus, mystery is the outcome. To illustrate“With forms that no man can discover”(p. 96). Or, in another line “ Into seas without a shore”(p.96). Or “Lakes that endlessly outspread”(p.96). So within this shapeless nature, Poe adds images of death and stagnation by the focus on the waters. In fact, the description of the waters is also repeated even in the third stanza. It conveys images of loneliness and death :
“Lakes that endlessly outspread
Their lone waters-lone and dead
Their still waters-still and chilly”(p.96).
Moreover, the waters are also personified by the attribute ‘lone’. It has the function to add to the dark tone of the poem.
In this short journey, we came accross some noticeable poems by Poe where the concept of ‘loneliness’ is substantially recurrent in various forms. The application of some of Eco’s concepts of textual interpretation helped us to better understand its significance by revealing the various images it conveys. We found that sometimes, he speaks directly about loneliness in order to express his sad personal life. Other times, he makes use of nature description as a means to express his sorrow and lonely soul. In another poem, it is personified to emphasize and strengthen the feelings of loneliness and thus impact the reader. However, in other instances, with the focus on the lonely nature, there is a praisal of its beauty mixed with mystery terror and even death. Semiotically, we can say that Poe was able to present the topic of loneliness in many ways. That is through paradox, connotations, point of view, isotopy and topic. As a result of this, ‘loneliness’ took a variety of functions.
In the end, we think that semiotics is a very fertile and reliable field to be exploited widely and particularly in the interpretation of poems. Starting with Michael Riffaterre, to MichailBakhtin, Roland Barthes, Umberto Eco, Julia Kriestiva among others we can say that the semiotic options are availbale and various, and here it depends on the vision of the critic to choose the adequate tools for the analysis of a particular poem.
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