Light, Fire, Prison
A Cognitive Analysis of Religious Imagery in Poetry
This paper explores the use of spatial imagery in poetry in general, and religious and mystic poetry in particular. It takes its departure from two trite observations. First, that language is highly differentiated and conceptual; it is, therefore, ill-suited to convey lowly differentiated, nonconceptual experiences, such as mystic experiences. Nevertheless, it has been observed that mystic poetry can sometimes convey not only the differentiated idea of mystic experiences, but also something of the undifferentiated experience itself. In my various writings I have explored a great variety of techniques by which poets sometimes manage to overcome this cognitive limitation. The present paper is yet another attempt at exploration. Though these techniques are applicable to a wide range of nonconceptual -- such as perceptual, emotional, mystic or ecstatic -- experiences, in the present context I will explore their application to problems that typically arise in religious poetry. Second, it has been observed that mental processes most frequently make use of visual, concrete, spatial imagery. I will explore some cognitive reasons for this tendency. As a bonus, I will have some comments on three central notions of literary criticism, allegory, symbol and archetypal patterns.
A word must be said about my attitude toward devotional poetry. In my old, 1974 Paper, "Poem, Prayer and Meditation" I claim that the same text may be used, with different deep structures, as a poem, a prayer or a meditation. I also claim, following Kris and Kaplan, that the very features that typically make for a good aesthetic object, typically make for a bad liturgic object. The liturgic object must appeal to the converted, whereas the aesthetic object must earn its way to the nonbeliever. Kris and Kaplan say (in their seminal paper "Aesthetic Ambiguity") that the liturgical object must be sufficiently unambiguous to allow the whole community project into it their shared feelings, whereas the aesthetic object (or, let us add, even the devotional poem as an aesthetic object) must be sufficiently ambiguous to earn its way to the unconverted. I am assuming here the position of an "empathetic" atheist, trying to show how some mystic poetry, by its very structure that is handled by the cognitive system in certain ways, may have certain effects on believers and nonbelievers alike, by offering them a verbal imitation of a mystic insight.
As for the varieties of mystic-religious poetry, I will face two central issues. First, in his stimulating book God the Problem, Gordon Kaufman claims that we use "God-language" in dealing "with experiences that are beyond the absolute limit of our experience, construed by analogy with the relative limits of our every-day life." Much mystic poetry, and much of its secular version in romantic poetry is an attempt to get a glimpse of that other, more real reality. They attempt to do this by way of showing, not merely telling. Some of these poems are remarkably successful. I have discussed this issue at considerable length in the chapter "The Representative Anecdote: Human Contingency" (of Tsur, 1992a, 257-274). In this respect, I will explore the potential contribution of two spatial images: light and prison. Why precisely these two images? There are many reasons for that, but one of them is this: "prison" is a convenient metaphor for the absolute limit; and "light" is a convenient metaphor for suggesting a source beyond that absolute limit.
Secondly, Mediaeval and Sixteenth-Seventeenth Century Jewish and Christian poets are sometimes confronted with the theological and poetic problem of how to fuse the Biblical personalistic conception of God with a Neo-Platonic conception of light emanation, or of "in the beginning was the Word". In a Hebrew paper called "Let There be Light and the Emanation of Light" I have discussed some of the poetic issues involved in the fusion of a Personal Creator and a Neo-Platonic conception of Creation in Milton's Paradise Lost and Ibn Gabirol's "Kingly Crown". In the present paper I intend to examine the poetic issues involved in such a fusion, in two short excerpts from Ibn Gabirol's "Kingly Crown", and in the short masterpiece "Here Comes the Sun" by the Thirteenth Century Armenian poet, Kostandin of Erznka.
As for poetic style, I will distinguish between two types of structure in figurative language, with their respective perceived qualities: split and integrated focus. Coleridge described the dominant property of poetic imagination as "the balance or reconcilement of opposite or discordant qualities". In integrated focus, greater emphasis goes to "the balance or reconcilement"; in split focus, to "opposite or discordant qualities". I will demonstrate split focus in Metaphysical and Modern poetry (Ibn Gabirol, Donne, Eliot); integrated focus -- in Renaissance and Romantic poetry (Sir Philip Sidney and Wordsworth). I will explore the different strategies in assigning unrelated or even incompatible meanings to the images "light" and "fire". The perceived effect of integrated focus is typically emotional, sometimes arousing the impression of "the verbal imitation of an intuition". The perceived effect of split focus is typically witty, sometimes involving "a strain of passionate paradoxical reasoning", generating a heightened awareness of the paradoxical nature of existence. Finally, integrated focus sometimes exploits orientation mechanisms to arouse an impression of intuitive processes, whereas split focus, at its extreme, at least, arouses a feeling of confusion and emotional disorientation.
Cognition and Spatial Imagery
Let us begin, then, with the observation that there is a general human tendency to treat mental states and processes, social relationships and various kinds of abstractions in terms of spatial imagery. The language of such primary processes as dreams is the sequence of spatial images. Kenneth Burke proposed a "dramatic" approach to the analysis of human motives, including "the principle whereby the scene is a fit 'container' for the act, expressing in fixed properties the same quality that the action expresses in terms of development" (Burke, 1962: 3). Very much in harmony with Burke, George Lakoff (e.g., Lakoff, 1993) and his associates have pointed out that there is a tendency to speak of purposeful activities in terms of motion in space, the purpose being expressed by the goal of the journey. Mental states or moral qualities are expressed in terms of staying in a certain place. Such idiomatic expressions as "he spilled the beans" and "he blew his stack" can be traced back to the generative metaphor "the body is a container". Lakoff speaks of such generative metaphors as "seeing is understanding" and "life is a journey". There is much empirical evidence for a significant correlation between mental representation and creativity. Students whose knowledge is represented in a spatial code have been found to make more creative use of it than those whose knowledge is represented in a verbal code (Walkup, 1965). In a paper on theory construction, J.J.C. Smart points out the enormous usefulness of spatial models in explaining physical laws. With reference to the Kinetic Theory of Gases, "we proceed to connect the gas laws with ideas, roughly speaking, of the behaviour of things like billiard balls" (Smart, 1966: 231). The theory is explanatory "because it shows the analogy between a gas and a swarm of particles, and in putting forward the analogy it has created some entirely new ideas, such as that of gas particles" (ibid., 234). At considerable variance with general belief, Smart suggests that "a failure to fit the facts may in certain circumstances be additional reason for accepting the theory as being essentially sound" (ibid., 236). As the example Smart adduces indicates, the reason for this resides in the nature of spatial models. The failure to fit the facts draws attention to some additional, hitherto ignored potential of the spatial model, that can be related to the observational facts. This may generate new, productive ideas about the domain explored.
In some of my earlier writings I have pointed out several reasons for this predominance of spatial imagery, one of them being that a spatial image is a very efficient coding of many kinds of information. In the chapter "The Concrete and the Abstract in Poetry" of my book On Metaphoring I have discussed at great length this aspect of the use of concrete images. The word "concrete" is derived from a Latin word meaning "grown together". In a concrete noun a large number of features are "grown together". Every such feature is a "meaning potential" of the spatial image. It also holds the potential to combine with other meaning potentials in the context. This I call "combinational potential". This efficient coding enables one to manipulate a large amount of information, without overburdening the system, and to move from one potential of the image to another, granting one great flexibility. Hence the relationship between spatial coding and creativity. This conception may illuminate the relationship between poetic symbol on the one hand, and such notions as allegory, or Lakoff's conceptual metaphor on the other. Symbol is the efficient coding of a wide range of usually unrelated or even incompatible sets of information. This may include allegoric meaning as one set of information, conceptual metaphor as another set. But the very essence of symbol is to include a much wider range of sets of information. In what follows, I shall illustrate this at great length.
In the chapter "Some Spatial and Tactile Metaphors for Sound" in my What Makes Sound Patterns Expressive -- The Poetic Mode of Speech Perception (1992b) I point out some additional reasons for the dominance of spatial imagery in human cognition. One of these reasons is the need to overcome certain limitations of the human cognitive system. Thus, for instance, instrumental music makes use of at least three dimensions of sound: pitch, volume and tone-colour. The last two dimensions are rather evasive. We can quite reliably, without instruments, distinguish a wide variety of pitches, and remember their order for years as a tune. But how many degrees of volume you can reliably distinguish, and then remember their sequence in, let us say, a recording of a Beethoven symphony, or, to make it easier, in its first twenty bars? And for how long? Pitch, by contrast, is recoded into a spatial template that resembles, roughly speaking, a ladder: it reaches upward, and is divided into rather clearly articulated steps. As a result, we are capable of remembering quite reliably long successions of tunes, for instance. But this ability is bought at the price of losing irrecoverably much evasive "precategorial" information. In the present paper, an opposite possibility will be explored: that spatial imagery can be used in mystic poetry to escape the tyranny of the clear-cut categories of conceptual language.
Potentials of Light
Let us begin our inquiry with Lakoff's short discussion of the opening lines of Dante's Divine Comedy:
The main bulk of the present paper will be devoted to an exploration of the figurative uses of fire, light and related images, such as darkness, clouds and shadow. Lakoff's discussion does, in fact, explore some of the more obvious potentials encoded, according to the foregoing discussion, in light: light affords seeing and finding the right way. Darkness deprives you of this ability. In some circumstances it is justified perhaps to equate with understanding this ability to find one's way, or to judge what is presented to one's perception. This is, certainly, one conspicuous potential of light, and we shall encounter it time and again in the course of our inquiry. But light has many other potentials as well, frequently exploited in poetry, religion and philosophy. Consider the first ten lines of one of Sir Philip Sidney's "Certain Sonnets":In the middle of life's road"Life's road" evokes the domain of life and the domain of travel, and hence the conventional LIFE IS A JOURNEY metaphor that links them. "I found myself in a dark wood" evokes the knowledge that if it's dark you cannot see which way to go. This evokes the domain of seeing, and the conventional metaphor that KNOWING IS SEEING, as in "I see what you're getting at", "his claims aren't clear", "the passage is opaque", and so forth (Lakoff, 1993: 237).
I found myself in a dark wood.
Leave me, O love which reachest but to dust;I will resist the temptation to discuss the other images, and will confine myself to the light image only. The phrase "let that light be thy guide" exploits, certainly, a meaning potential similar to the one the opposite of which we encountered in Dante. But, in addition, "Draw in thy beams" seems to suggest here something very similar to its sequel: "humble all thy might". "Fade" in line 4 means "to become dim as light, or lose brightness of illumination"; here it refers to the opposite of "that which never taketh rust" -- gold on the one hand and spiritual things on the other which, in turn, suggest "being valuable". Line 7, "Which breaks the clouds and opens forth the light", exploits an additional, very frequent and important potential of light: light can put us in contact with worlds inaccessible to us; it can travel to our place from far beyond our reach. In this case, it reaches us from some place that is not only inaccesible for our body; we cannot even see its source, it is hidden by the clouds. In Gordon Kaufman's terms, light in this case helps us to deal "with experiences that are beyond the absolute limit of our experience". Line 8 exploits two additional potentials of light: "shines" suggests splendour, perhaps of that inaccessible reality. And last, but not least, light may "give us sight to see", literally. For Sidney, then, light is a bundle of many features, and he exploits them one after the other to suggest changing meanings, that are not necessarily compatible with one another. By this he achieves what in some aesthetic theories is called "unity-in-variety".
And thou, my mind, aspire to higher things;
Grow rich in that which never taketh rust,
Whatever fades but fading pleasure brings.
Draw in thy beams, and humble all thy might
To that sweet yoke where lasting freedoms be;
Which breaks the clouds and opens forth the light,
That doth both shine and give us sight to see.
O take fast hold; let that light be thy guide
In this small course which birth draws out to death,
Or take the Neo-Platonic image of the Creation as Light Emanation. The two most conspicuous potentials of light exploited in this image is that it is a thing-free and shape-free substance, and that the further away it travels from its source, the less intense, the fainter it becomes. There is an interesting trace of the KNOWING IS SEEING ingredient in this image. The stronger the light, the more "spiritual" it is. Near its source, it is purely spiritual; the further away from its source, it becomes less spiritual, more grossly physical. The shadow, according to this model, is purely physical, devoid of all spirituality. This generates an interesting paradox pregnant with poetic possibilities: the shadow is continuous with the emanating light; at the same time, it is opposite to it as well. "Sensual reality is, at one and the same time, the last link in a uniform series of emanations, and the absolute opposite of the suprasensual world. There is a manifest clash here between the monism of the metaphysical view of the world, and the dualism of its theory of values" (Guttmann, 1973: 106). The element of inaccessible reality too is present in the light-emanation image. Human beings have access only to the last stages of emanated light. At any rate, poets may choose to foreground the "uniform series of emanations", or the absolute opposition between light and shadow, or the "manifest clash" between the two conceptions. By the way, Jungian psychology exploits three obvious potentials of "shadow": it is the opposite of "knowing", it belongs to the "unconscious"; it represents the "darker", more sinister part of our personality; and it can easily be "cast" on objects to which it inherently does not belong.
Or consider the stars: they are sources of light. They are small, they are far away, inaccessible, steadfast. "Bright Star! would I were steadfast as thou art!" says Keats. For Shakespeare, too, Love "is an ever-fixèd mark/ That looks on tempests and is never shaken"; but, in addition, it is also "the star for every wandering bark", showing the right way. But, in much poetry, stars make us feel, again, that we are in contact to some degree or other with some inaccessible reality. They do this in two different ways. First, they send forth the light from afar; and second, they set behind the horizon: we see them setting "there", but don't know where. In fact, we see them setting "beyond the absolute limit of our experience", thus bringing us into some contact with that "beyond". In Wordsworth's Immortality Ode we read: "The soul that rises with us, our life's star / Hath had elsewhere its setting". The Roumanian Symbolist poet, Mihai Eminescu, in his poem "La Steaua" (To the Star), draws upon an additional potential of stars, that became available to him only through modern astronomy. Stars are millions of light years away from us, and have their own life cycle. When we see the light of a star, it may be long extinguished and thus, something no longer existing may influence our lives, like our extinct loves. Now stars have an additional feature, of very significant meaning potential. At the night sky they are very clearly discernible; but when the day breaks, they become fainter and fainter, finally disappearing in the day light. For present-day astronomers, the Star of Betlehem could be a supernova: a star that exploded, doubling the light of our galaxy, and became strong enough to be visible at day time. For the authors of the New Testament, it was a miracle that the star could overcome this law of nature that the smaller light disappears in the bigger light. In the Hellenistic treatise on rhetoric and poetics Peri Hypsous (attributed to Longinus) we find the following simile: "For just as all dim lights are extinguished in the blaze of the sun, so do these artifices of rhetoric fade from view when bathed in the pervading splendour of sublimity". The same is true, with the necessary changes, of fire. Russell (1987: 122), speaks of "the Zoroastrian belief that the greater fire can overwhelm and vitiate the power of the smaller".
Some literary critics are inclined to regard the realization of the potentials discussed above as "conventions". There is, indeed, no reason on earth why we should not store all those conventions in memory, except for parsimony. My position is that the ability to move from one potential of an image to another is the basis of creativity both in poets and readers, and can account for their ability to handle unforeseen situations. This can also explain where do conventions come from (when those potential meanings turn into conventions). There would be precedence for my conception in the way we use images in everyday cognitive tasks. Consider such questions as "Is a ping-pong ball smaller or bigger than an egg?", or "What is the colour of the bee's head?" We usually do not store in advance the verbal answers to such questions in our memory. When the question comes, unexpectedly, we retrieve the image from memory, assess the relevant features, and newly generate an answer (we would not call them "conventions", even though the odds are that most people who can answer those questions will generate roughly the same answers). The issue at stake is whether we are willing to grant poets and readers a considerable degree of creativity in changing circumstances, or prefer to regard them as conditioned by unchanging conventions.
Light and Fire: Split and Integrated Focus
The dichotomy "Split and Integrated Focus" is a most serviceable tool in the analysis of poetry. On the one hand, it is general enough to make generalizations across poems, or poetic styles and periods. On the other hand, it has sufficient descriptive contents to make subtle distinctions within the micro-structure of one poem. The methodology involved is rather complex, but operationally well-defined. Description must be done on two levels. One must describe the perceived quality of a stretch of text, ranging from one line to a whole poem, as emotional, witty, intuitively smooth, disorienting, and the like. Then one must look for elements in the text that "typically count toward" or "against" the quality perceived. There must be a third stage, explicitly stated, or lingering in the background: a theoretical framework within which one may justify that a certain feature typically counts toward or against some perceived quality.
I have said above that language is highly differentiated and conceptual, and is therefore ill-suited to convey lowly differentiated, nonconceptual experiences, such as mystic experiences. In this and the next two paragraphs I will consider some linguistic and cognitive devices that are prone to increase the compact, linear and logical-conceptual character of language or, on the contrary, its diffuse, global and emotional-intuitive character. These devices are independent variables, and may act in a text in harmony, reinforcing each others effect, or may conflict, mitigating or overriding each other's effect. Of the many possible variables, I will present here only three intimately related ones (though I may touch on additional ones in the course of my specific analyses): modes of space perception (shapes or orientation); modes of verbal presentation (description or argument); types of background (specific or universal scene, or no background at all).
For present purposes we may point out two different mechanisms for space perception: shape perception and orientation. The two are located in different brain centres, and when one is damaged by brain injury, the other one still may function flawlessly. The two mechanisms are opposed in almost all respects. Shape perception dissociates the perceiving self from the thing perceived; it picks up visual information, analyses and organizes it into stable well-differentiated relationships. Visual shapes display stability, definite directions, and frequently generate closed areas. Orientation, by contrast, is defined by the Random House College Dictionary as "the ability to locate oneself in one's environment with reference to time, place, and people". Consequently, it picks up from one's environment a wide range of diffuse information in all sensory modes, specifying the environment as well as self-specifying relative to the environment. It effects fast integration of diverse, fluid and diffuse information. While shape perception is precise, analytic and determines specific directions, orientation is much faster, less precise, determining general tendencies only, but capable of coping with rapidly changing conditions. In my paper "Aspects of Cognitive Poetics" I claimed that emotions are efficient orientation devices. In figurative language, nouns that denote objects with stable characteristic visual shapes are hard to fuse, tend to conflict with one another and are prone to split the focus of perception. The result is frequently witty or grotesque. Abstract nouns, by contrast, and nouns that denote thing-free and Gestalt-free entities, may fuse more easily and more imperceptibly. When an enclosing or surrounding open space is indicated by the text, with a perceiving consciousness in its centre, that is, when the orientation mechanism is activated by imagination, thing-free and Gestalt-free entities are perceived as more diffuse, more fluid, less stable, less logical. From this distinction other distinctions can be derived. A persuasive argument has a beginning, middle and end, and displays a patent purpose and definite directions. A landscape description, by contrast, refers to an entity that has no beginning, middle and end, and has no definite direction or patent purpose. At the same time, it may serve as the immediate environment in which orientation takes place. Sometimes, an immediate environment, a concrete situation defined "here and now", centering around a perceiving consciousness, may be indicated by some deictic device, without mentioning concrete objects with stable characteristic visual shapes, turning the thing-free and Gestalt-free entities into emotionally loaded diffuse information, as in:
It is a beauteous evening, calm and free,or
The holy Time is quiet as a nun,
Breathless with adoration...
Oh listen! for the vale profoundBy contrast, when the thing-free and Gestalt-free entities are displayed against a general background, or no background at all, the abstract nouns and the thing-free and Gestalt-free entities tend to preserve their compact, conceptual nature. By selecting the images mentioned in the title of this paper, I have loaded the dices in favour of integrated focus: light and fire are thing-free qualities that have no stable characteristic visual shapes; and in the prison not its shape is emphasized, but rather the enclosing space and one's own relationship to the physical limitation. Notwithstanding, as we will see, poets sometimes overcome this integrating potential of light and fire and split the focus.
Is overflowing with the sound.
Coming back to Sir Philip Sidney's sonnet, some of its conspicuous elements typically count toward split focus, and some toward integrated focus. There are two elements in this poem that we might typically expect to occur in a Metaphysical poem. First, there is a vigorous argument attempting to persuade "Love" and "my mind" to behave in a certain way, displaying a psychological atmosphere of patent purpose and definite direction. This would count, doubtless, toward a rational, logical-conceptual attitude in the poem. Furthermore, light in this poem is treated very much in the way of the Metaphysical Conceit. Light is treated as a bundle of features by virtue of wich a variety of unrelated meanings are encoded in it. Very much in the way Donne does with his notorious compass image, Sidney enumerates these meanings one by one, placing them in the "sharp focus" of the reader's contemplation. Nonetheless, the poem is not perceived as a witty Metaphysical poem, because these features of the poem are overridden by some other features that typically count in the opposite direction, indicating rather a mild emotionally charged quality of "insight". First, the various meanings encoded in "light" are unrelated, but not conspicuously incompatible; they can be -- and are, in fact -- accommodated in one situation. Second, while the compass, e.g., has a stable characteristic visual shape and the various figurative meanings attributed to it can be understood only through a careful visualization of its various aspects, the light and the clouds are thing-free and Gestalt-free entities. Finally, the line "Which breaks the clouds and opens forth the light" evokes an unlimited landscape, with a perceiving consciousness locating itself with reference to the clouds and the light. This is reinforced by the "LIFE-AS-A-JOURNEY" metaphor: "let that light be thy guide / In this small course which birth draws out to death". The "small course", though used metaphorically, has an additional function here: it helps to evoke the consistent landscape with the situation defined "here and now". The light breaking through the clouds indicates some reality beyond one's reach; the thing-free and Gestalt-free nature of "clouds" and "light" enhances the non-conceptual nature of the experience indicated; the orientation-mechanism evoked by the situation amplifies the diffuseness of these entities; this diffusing effect is mitigated but not cancelled by the persuasive argument pervading the poem, displaying a psychological atmosphere of definite direction and of patent purpose.
The next two short examples are due to the great eleventh-century Hebrew poet in Spain, Shlomo Ibn-Gabirol, from his monumental philosophical-liturgical work, Kingly Crown, written in rhymed prose. Compare Sidney's use of the light image to that in the following excerpt:
Yours is the reality whose light's shadow generated all existent things /In Neo-Platonic philosophy there is some partial identity between light and shadow on the one hand, and spiritual and physical existence on the other. Light is perceived as a metaphor for some suprasensual reality. This metaphor has been developed so thoroughly that it must be meant literally: sensual reality is conceived of as of the last stage in the process of emanation and, at the same time, as the outright opposite of the suprasensual reality. This metaphor is meant to bridge the gap between the spiritual and the physical world, and to substitute a difference in degree for the difference in kind. Some aspects of shadow, however, are irrelevant to this metaphor; a shadow may, for instance, arouse a pleasurable feeling, by keeping away the heat of the sun. Precisely this property of the shadow is exploited in the next segment. At the same time, Ibn Gabirol uses this image to bridge another "unbridgeable" abyss, between the Neo-Platonic conception of creation by way of light emanation, and the monotheistic conception of a personal creator. Ibn Gabirol is not contented with an easy solution, by conceiving of the light or of the reality as the Creator's possession ("Yours is the reality"); he resorts to a typical device of seventeenth-century English Metaphysical poetry. The phrase "of whom we said: under his shadow we shall live" is a literal quotation from Lamentations IV: 20, where it refers to "the Lord's annointed" who "was taken in the pits" of "our pursuers". In this Biblical context, "live" suggests "living among the nations". In the present context of Ibn Gabirol's poem, there is a drastic shift in the implications of these phrases. "His shadow" suggests something like Divine Providence or protection. The phrase "under his shadow" is idiomatic, a dead metaphor; but its juxtaposition with "light's shadow" revives it.
of whom we said: under his shadow we shall live.
Though in Ibn Gabirol's use, just as in Sidney's, light and shadow have no stable characteristic visual shapes, the unrelated meanings attributed to the images are, nonetheless, less readily fused in Ibn Gabirol. First, because they are not merely unrelated; they are incompatible. The light in Sidney can come from afar, break the clouds, shine, give sight and show the right way at the same time, whereas the light and the shadow in Ibn Gabirol cannot suggest the stages of emanation and protection from heat at the same time. Second, while Sidney's image vaguely evokes a specific scene with a perceiving consciousness walking along the road and looking at the sky, at the light breaking through the clouds, no such specific situation is indicated by Ibn Gabirol's images: they are offered to the reader's contemplation with no background at all; thus, the orientation mechanism is not activated in the processing of the image. Third, the two tokens of "shadow" have incompatible emotional implications, negative and positive: while in the first segment light is perceived as the supreme good and shadow as its opposite, or at least as something considerably less good, in the second segment the shadow is perceived as valuable, precisely because it gives protection against light.
Thus, in Ibn Gabirol's image two "most heterogeneous ideas are yoked together by violence" -- in Dr. Johnson's phrasing. It presents the "essential paradox of 'the one and the many'"; its elements "enter into a solid unity, while preserving their warring identity" -- in James Smith's classic formulation of the metaphysical conceit. In other words, those heterogeneous ideas are accommodated in one linguistic sign, which, pushed to the focus of consciousness, allows consciousness to turn around and examine itself. That is how Ibn Gabirol arouses "a sense of confusion and emotional disorientation", not unlike the feeling aroused by the grotesque; at the same time he provides, by the same image, the means to cope with it. As for the kind of consciousness yielded by the two images, Sidney's image yields a mitigated version of the direct perception of the existence of a transcendental world, beyond the final limit, whereas Ibn Gabirol's image yields a different kind of consciousness. If "insight" is correctly characterised as the sudden discovery of unity in complexity, by accommodating incompatible meanings in a single image, such metaphysical conceits as the one by Ibn Gabirol may yield a sense of "insight" into the complexity of the Creator, and the paradoxical nature of human existence -- under well-practiced circumstances at least, when one need not consult footnotes for understanding the image.
Not infrequently we find, indeed, in Ibn Gabirol's poetry dealing wih the nature of the Creator or the nature of existence that where he could achieve an integrated focus by smooth transition, he conspicuously splits the focus of perception by a variety of means. Let us consider just another instance from "Kingly Crown", violently yoking together, again, the Biblical and the Neo-Platonic conceptions of Creation (involving a personal Creator and light emanation), drastically splitting the focus after having already achieved a smooth transition.
Thou art wise -- and wisdom the fountain of life from thee flows...Wisdom is, certainly, an attribute of a purposeful personal Creator, who cannot dissolve in a Gestalt-free vision. Wisdom, however, is a Gestalt-free and thing-free quality that does not contain visual elements that conflict with some flowing, or radiating substance, smoothly spreading over a great area of space or time. In this way, Ibn Gabirol generated in the first quoted line a smooth transition from a personal Creator to a presentation that is compatible with the emanation of light. In the second line quoted, however, he splits the focus by what I would call "praeterition". "Praeterition" is the rhetorical device of suggesting something while pretending not to, as in "Far be it from me to suggest that...". In the present instance, the negative metaphor "drawest from the fountain without a bucket" is meant to arouse a sense of marvel as it were, emphasizing the difference between God and human beings. However, precisely by introducing the "bucket", he emphasizes the human dimension. The poet could convey his figurative meaning perfectly well without having recourse to the "bucket". The bucket foregrounds precisely those ingredients in drawing water that are irrelevant to his purpose. Thus, while pretending to de-personalize the act, the poet sabotages his own achievement in the earlier line, splitting the focus of perception: by the mere mention of the bucket, he "domesticates" the sublime act of creation; and introduces an object that has a stable characteristic visual shape into the Gestalt-free and thing-free vision of light emanation. These and additional instances strongly suggest that far from being a failure to observe certain Classicist or Romantic norms, split focus is a consistent aesthetic conception in Ibn Gabirol's poetry.
Thou drawest from the fountain of light without a bucket...
The Paradox of Fire and Fire in Donne and Eliot
There are good reasons to suppose that the metaphoric identification of heat and emotional arousal has intercultural foundations. Consider the following:
If the extended uses of the sensation vocabulary in English are historical accidents rather than metaphors then these extensions ought not to be regularly found in other languages so long as these languages have no historical connection with English. Asch drew up a long list of words of this kind and looked at their equivalents in Old Testament Hebrew, Homeric Greek, Chinese, Thai, Malayalam, and Hausa. He found that all these languages have morphemes that are used to name both physical and psychological qualities. They all have morphemes that designate physical-psychological pairings identical with some found in English. These results suggest that the referents have shared attributes which have caused identical metaphors to be independently discovered by different peoples. In addition, Asch found, that a morpheme referring to a given physical property may develop psychological meanings that are not identical in all languages. For example, the morpheme for hot stands for rage in Hebrew, enthusiasm in Chinese, sexual arousal in Thai, and energy in Hausa. However, this disagreement does not suggest the operation of accidental factors since there is an undoubted kinship in the range of meanings. All seem to involve heightened activity and emotional arousal. No case has been discovered in which the morpheme for hot named a remote, calm (in fact cool) manner (Brown, 1968: 145-146).In our cultural heritage, the identification of intense passions with fire goes back at least to the Old Testament: the Song of Songs, and the Book of Psalms. Love, jealousy, religious zeal are all like fire. Consider: "For zeal for your house consumed me" (Psalms 69: 9), and "For love is strong as death, jealousy is cruel as grave. Its flashes are flashes of fire, a most vehement flame. Many waters cannot quench love" (Song of Songs 8: 6-7). "Metaphysical" poets at least from Ibn Gabirol on took up this partial identification of passions (mainly love) with fire and turned it into a total identification: those passions may literally burn the body. Love could be quenched with many waters, Ibn Gabirol suggests at variance with the verse in Solomon's Song, the trouble is that God has already sworn that Noah's waters will not be exceeded (Donne uses the same conceit about drawning his world in a flood of tears in the sonnet discussed below). Donne begins one of his Holy Sonnets with the statement "I am a little world"; then he is concerned with the destruction of his world:
Pour new seas in mine eyes, that so I mightDonne makes use here of an elaborate metaphysical conceit and a (concealed) metaphysical pun that lead to an oxymoron. The result is split focus, a strain of passionate paradoxical reasoning. Passions involve great internal heat, great energy, and may be painful and destructive. Some other potentials of fire, such as its ability to destroy huge sections of the physical world, or to smelt and refine ore into pure metals is irrelevant to the identification of passions with fire. But these are, precisely, the meanings attributed to the fire in Donne's poem: the fire of lust and envy will destroy Donne's "little world", unless the "fiery zeal" smelts and purifies -- purges -- it. Donne uses the verse quoted above from Psalms and inserts it into his poem almost verbatim. The verb "consume" of the English Bible is ambiguous, meaning "to destroy as by burning", or "to eat or drink up". Donne uses straightforward "eating" as in the original Hebrew Bible. The oxymoron "which doth in eating heal" suggests the painful process of purification, and keeps the focus split. I have said that Donne creates here a concealed metaphysical pun as well. The Hebrew Bible uses the same noun for "jealousy" in the above verse from Solomon's Song ("envy" in the Sonnet), and for "zeal" in the verse from the Psalms. Thus, the Hebrew word denotes a negative and a positive passion at one and the same time. Both passions are partially identified with fire, according to the conventional use of the metaphor. But Donne exploits those features of fire too that are irrelevant to passions, again, a negative and a positive action respectively.
Drown my world with my weeping earnestly,
Or wash it if it must be drowned no more:
But oh it must be burnt! alas the fire
Of lust and envy have burnt it heretofore,
And made it fouler; Let their flames retire,
And burn me ô Lord, with a fiery zeal
Of thee and thy house, which doth in eating heal.
John Donne, Holy Sonnet 5
From the point of view of Christian Doctrine, there is no great difference between Donne's and Eliot's use of the fire image. From the stylistic point of view, too, there is some resemblance between their uses. Consider the following lines from Eliot's Four Quartets, "Little Gidding" IV.
... The only hope or else dispairEliot has recourse to the same technique as Donne: he takes one metaphoric signifiant, fire, and attaches to it two or more signifiés. By this he, too, arouses a sense of unity in multiplicity. But he sharpens Donne's technique for splitting the focus in two respects. First, Donne clearly indicates the metaphoric identifications of fire by saying "the fire of lust and envy", or "a fiery zeal", whereas Eliot gives no indication whatever of his metaphoric identifications. Second, Eliot clearly flouts a communicational taboo: he uses one word in undoubtedly different meanings, without giving any indication of that. When he says "To be redeemed from fire by fire" or "Consumed by either fire or fire", there is no formal indication that the various tokens may refer to different things. Its main purpose appears to be to strike the reader with its illogicality. Donne, by contrast, offers some dramatic rationalization for identifying fire with different passions: He implores that "Let their flames retire" (of one kind of fire), and asks the Lord to burn him with another kind of fire.
Lies in the choice of pyre or pyre --
To be redeemed from fire by fire.
... We only live, only suspire
Consumed by either fire or fire.
As for the specific meanings of "fire", they may refer to the passions suggested by Donne, derived from traditional Christian doctrine, such negative ones as "lust", "envy", or such positive ones as "love" or "fiery zeal". But they may be, also, some fiery zeals derived from modern life, perhaps reinterpreted in light of traditional Christian doctrine. The same my hold true of "Lies in the choice of pyre or pyre", indicating perhaps such traditional notions as that martyrdom is the only way to escape the fire of Hell; or, perhaps, in modern life, one may choose only between one martyrdom and another. There is no way of moving smoothly from one term of the figurative expression to the other; the tautology, or the incompatibility of the terms is forced upon the reader before he may attempt at all to settle the incompatible terms. Thus, we may distinguish even degrees of split focus.
Neo-Classical poetics would condemn such verse instances as "False Wit". "True Wit" consists in the resemblance of ideas, "False Wit" in the resemblance of words; "Mixt Wit" consists partly in the resemblance of ideas, partly in the resemblance of words (Addison). The assigning of different or even incompatible meanings to the same image yields "False Wit", at best "Mixt Wit". The designation of "envy" and "zeal" as "fire" results in similarity of words. But insofar as both are human passions, there is here also a similarity of ideas. Bad Classicism, however, can be good Mannerism and, as we shall see, even good Romanticism.
The Paradox of Light and Light in Wordsworth
Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:Wordsworth's Ode, and this stanza in particular, is, like so much Romantic poetry, a secular version of the mystic endeavour to experience the world beyond the absolute limit, and tracing the soul's progress between the two worlds. Much religious-mystic and secular-Romantic poetry begins with a state of utter separation between the two worlds; and the poem attempts to overcome the absolute barrier. In this respect, this stanza is somewhat exceptional. It presents the pre-natal state in which the soul was in intimate relationship with that inacessible world; birth brings a drastic but not total detachment from that world: the child is still in contact with it but, in the course of "maturation", gradually and imperceptibly this contact is loosened and lost. This narrative may bring to our attention an interesting cognitive and aesthetic problem. Much mystic and Romantic poetry consists in a strife to overcome the tyranny of conceptual thinking and of conceptual language in order to achieve a non-conceptual experiencing of that world beyond, and convey a verbal imitation thereof. This stanza of Wordsworth's Ode presents some of the crucial stages of the process in straightforward statements whose figurative language can hardly disguise their conceptual nature, such as "From God who is our home: / Heaven lies about us in our infancy!" But some other points of the process are presented with a verbal subtlety that renders its perception "intuitive", "non-conceptual", "unconscious", or the like. Thus, rather than attempting to give here a verbal imitation of the non-conceptual nature of the experiencing of the world beyond, the stanza provides a verbal imitation of the non-conceptual nature of the transition, of the gradual loss of contact. Paradoxically enough, the heightening of this intuitive perception of the subtle, evasive, transition between the two kinds of consciousness, heightens our awareness of that other-wordly consciousness.
The Soul that rises with us, our life's Star,
Hath had elsewhere its setting,
And cometh from afar;
Not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
From God who is our home:
Heaven lies about us in our infancy!
Shades of the prison-house begin to close
Upon the growing boy,
But he beholds the light and whence it flows,
He sees it in his joy;
The Youth who daily further from the east
Must travel, still is Nature's priest,
And by the vision splendid
Is on his way attended;
At length the Man perceives it die away,
And fade into the light of common day.
Following Coleridge's conception of imagination, Cleanth Brooks insisted in his book The Well-Wrought Urn that all good poetry is paradoxical. He had little difficulty to show this in seventeenth century poetry, or in Pope's The Rape of the Lock. But he insisted that this is true also with reference to such supposedly single-minded poets as Wordsworth. He demonstrated his contention with reference to Wordsworth's Calais-Beach Sonnet and Immortality Ode. I am not entirely happy with some of the details of his analysis; and even where our views overlap, I will prefer a formulation that brings out the similarity between Wordsworth's technique on the one hand, and Sidney's, Donne's and Eliot's technique on the other. What is more, I will insist on a further question: if these techniques are so similar, why are they so different?
Let us begin with the partial identification of "The Soul that rises with us" and "our life's Star". Unlike Brooks, I am not inclined to interpret "our life's Star" as the sun, but as the individual star that rises with each new-born child and falls with each dying man. Now in this star a variety of potential meanings are encoded. First, its light gives information about a remote, inaccessible reality. Second, this star and remote reality are intimately associated with our soul's origin. Third, its identification with the soul is only partial. In many respects it behaves like other stars. It rises every night and sets every morning; what is more, it "Hath had elsewhere its setting" -- we see it move across the night sky and then disappear. We cannot see the place where it disappears, and it too is inaccesible to us. Thus, the star forcefully indicates to us, and in two different ways, that there is some remote, inaccessible reality, beyond our absolute limits. Fourth, this star behaves in an additional respect like all normal stars. When the day-light comes, its smaller light fades away in the bigger light.
We have seen that Donne and Eliot split the focus by assigning sharply distinguishable, incompatible referents to the same "fire" image. I will argue that Wordsworth does exactly the same with his "light" image, but in a way that blurs the focus of perception and disguises the incompatibility of the referents. Let me begin by presenting the most conspicuous issue in this respect. As I pointed out long ago (Tsur, 1971), the "seeing is knowing" metaphor has two kinds of instantiation in Western thought and literature. Since sight is the most differentiated of the senses (as opposed to "feeling", for instance) it is used as a metaphor for knowing and understanding. Elsewhere (Tsur, 1987: 38) I quoted Rudolf Otto who (1959: 15) insists that
It is essential to every theistic conception of God [...] that it [is] thought of by analogy with our human nature of reason and personality; only, whereas in ourselves we are aware of this as qualified by restriction and limitation, as applied to god the attributes we use are [...] thought as absolute and unqualified.As for the irrational aspect of God,
We can cooperate in this process by bringing before [one's] notice all that can be found in other regions of the mind, already known and familiar, to resemble, or again afford some special contrast to, the particular experience we wish to elucidate (21).This holds true regarding the reality beyond our absolute limit as well. Thus, in our case, seeing would be used as a metaphor for the perception of the other, suprasensual world. Tradition made the seer Tiresias blind, suggesting that what he sees is some suprasensual truth. One might say that in this case, blindness conflicts with seeing, deletes the actual sensory feature in the semantic make-up of the verb, thus foregrounding the (nonsensory) information-reception feature. Oedipus, by contrast, whose sensory faculties are flawless, cannot see the abomination in which he lives.
Very much in the spirit of Donne and Eliot, Wordsworth refers to both kinds of metaphoric "seeing" by light. But, in addition, he insists on the plain literal meaning of light as well; what is more, that is the meaning that is in the focus of attention in the concluding lines of the stanza: "At length the Man perceives it die away, / And fade into the light of common day." The "light of common day" suggests literal light, in which the smaller lights of the stars fade away. At the same time, "the common day" is metonymy for certain ways of thinking and understanding. It is the fading away of one light in the other that is in the focus of the reader's attention; the process is smooth, almost imperceptible. The "fading away" of one kind of seeing in another kind of seeing takes place off-focus, and is almost unnoticed. Since light is a thing-free quality that has no stable characteristic visual shape, displays, indeed, no spatio-temporal continuity, it has no identity either, and the smooth fusion of lights takes place unobstructed.
Now consider the following pairs of possible antonyms: pre-natal state ~ birth; sleep ~ awakening; learning ~ forgetting. From the point of view of increasing consciousness one might expect birth - awakening - learning to be analogous and to be used in poetry such that they reinforce each other. One of the central paradoxes Brooks finds in this stanza is that they are presented as acting in opposite directions: "Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting". The issue here, I suggest, is that rather than transition from non-exitence to existence, our birth is a transition from one kind of consciousness to another. Sleep is an altered state of consciousness; forgetting suggests unlearning, whereas birth suggests the beginning of learning. Thus, sleep becomes a state of lowly differentiated consciousness, opposed to the preceding and ensuing more highly differentated states. Thus we have, at one and the same time, a uniform series of progressions, and an absolute opposition between its extremes. The two differentiated states suggest opposite kinds of perceptions, Tiresias' and Oedipus', related by one continuous process. "Birth, sleep, fogetting" are abstract nouns, and ought to confer a conceptual nature upon the discourse. This ought to be reinforced by the universal background against which the declarative statement of the first line should be understood. Nonetheless, the subtle semantic processes described in this paragraph tend to promote some nonconceptual fusion of the semantic information; this is further enhanced by the absence of stable characteristic visual shapes, and by some additional processes to be discussed later.
"But trailing clouds of glory do we come" is a crucial expression in the process we are considering. "Clouds" may act as metaphor for blurred memory; it translates temporal into spatial distance, indistinct memories into indistinct light, and remembering into seeing. On the other hand, the light, or soul, does not come "in utter nakedness", it is wrapped, as it were, in "clouds of glory". "Clouds of glory" has about it something of an oxymoron. It can be settled in several ways. For instance, it may refer to an intermediate state of physicalness in the progession of the soul from its origin: from the point of view of our pre-natal state, this substance is perceived as cloud; from our "dull sublunary" existence (to use Donne's expression) it is perceived as glory, splendour, halo. This double nature of "clouds of glory" is emphasized by "trailing": solidness and floating. Clouds of dust may have something of this double nature: they consist of solid particles floating in the air like gas particles. "Clouds of glory" are made up of finer substance -- matter, "to airy thinness beat".
This evokes the Neo-Platonic image of light emanating from a distant source -- the further it gets from its source, the grosser matter it becomes. This replaces the one progress in space by several. There is the sun's daily progress, as suggested by Brooks, further away from the east; there is the child's progress, further away from the east -- the source of his other-wordly light. This motion, however, only continues the other progress, the light travelling from its hidden source, gradually materialized as "clouds of glory", as child, as youth, as man.
Now consider the line "Shades of the prison-house begin to close". "Shades" is a physical image, in which several images meet. First, it is the third, relatively gross material stage of the sequence "light - clouds of glory - shades". Second, "shades of the prison-house" suggests that in a prison-house one is deprived of light. Third, "shades [...] begin to close" indicates a process of closing more and more. At the same time, "shades" can be conceived as a less substantial prison, which in due course of process, will gradually thicken and solidify -- till they become concrete, impenetrable prison-walls. Fourth, this phrase may contain an interesting syntactic manipulation. The predicate "to close" suits perfectly well a subject like "shades"; what is more, the verbal aspect "begins" suits an unstable substance like "shades" much better than stable prison-walls. Notwithstanding, the main predicate may refer here to "prison-house" as well. In this respect, we are dealing here with what I have elsewhere called "thematized predicate", a transformational device that turns a prenominal or predicative adjective into an abstract noun and places it in a referring position. In this respect, it is a "shadowy prison-house" that begins to close. In this way we obtain a "prison-house" that is and is not at one and the same time: it is intangible shades that begin to close but, at the same time, they form an impenetrable prison-house. One reason for the softness of focus in the present case is that the verb "to close" suits, in somewhat different senses, both "shades" and "prison-house". A second reason is that the two meanings are difficult to distinguish in the flow or reading: They indicate different stages of the same process of gradual loss of freedom.
"The Light" has in this stanza, then, two different opposites: shades, and the light of common day. Thus, the paradox Cleanth Brooks noticed regarding the first line of the stanza returns in its last two lines. "At length the Man perceives it die away" makes one expect that it leads to darkness. Since, however, light stands for two kinds of vision, the paradoxical outcome is: when light dies away, we have light. In spite of this, the paradox is not felt as in Eliot's "to be redeemed from fire by fire", because the image relies on an additional, physical potential of light, widely experienced in everyday life, namely, that the smaller light tends to "fade into" the greater light. "Common day" is metonymy (besides light) for everyday life, material needs, etc.
The core of stanza V of Wordsworth's Ode is, then a paradox -- the verbal reconciliation of two incompatible notions, by making a single image (light) stand for both. In this it is like any "metaphysical" poem by Ibn Gabirol, Donne, or Eliot. There are, however, in the stanza several related motifs. Their relationships are diverse. Some motifs are related through the physical attributes of light ("and fade into the light of common day"). Some are related by using luminous objects as metaphors ("our life's Star"); or the opposite of light ("shades of the prison-house"). The basic contrast between two kinds of world (implying two kinds of vision) has been reinforced by additional oppositions: contrast between sleep and awakening; between forgetting and recollection (as well as learning and forgetting); between "here" and "there" ("our soul [...] cometh from afar", "our life's Star / Hath had elsewhere its setting", the Youth "daily further from the east / Must travel"); between narrow limits and unlimited space (prison-house - heaven - "cometh from afar"). The blending of various images into one meaning blurs their contours, softens and integrates the focus.
This technique of assigning incompatible meanings to one image would be condemned, as I suggested, by a critic of Neo-Classical inclination, as "False", or "Mixt Wit". As I have pointed out, what is bad Classicism may be excellent Mannerism or Romanticism. This instance of Romantic poetry displays the techniques we have encountered in the instances of "Metaphysical" poetry. They are only more evasive, and involve a considerably greater number of elements. The wide range of possible meanings of light exploited in this stanza, some in focus, some off-focus, the various near-synonymous (but still different) travellings away from the east, the various images coinciding in "the shades" overburden the reader's mental processing space. As I have elsewhere suggested (Tsur, 1992a: 418), the information conveyed by the succession of images may, under certain conditions, result in a cognitive overload on the reader's processing space; in such a case, one might assume, the reader is compelled to handle this information by collapsing it into an undifferentiated mass (very much in the manner in which perceptual overload is handled by "dumping" the excess of perceptual information into an undifferentiated background mass). These "certain conditions" may include the absence of stable characteristic visual shapes that might obstruct the smooth fusion of such incompatible entities as the ones denoted by light. This, in turn, may include the use of "thematized predicate" (as in "Shades of prison-house"). Consider, for instance, such two consecutive lines as
Not in entire forgetfulness,Their way of presentation suggests that "forgetfulness" and "nakedness" should be either parallel or opposite to each other. In both cases, the cognitive system could handle them parsimoniously. As a matter of fact, they are neither parallel, nor contrary to one another; thus increasing the load on processing memory.
And not in utter nakedness...
Allegory, Symbol and Archetype in a 13th Century Mystic Poem
I am going to wind up my argument by examining at considerable length the imagery and archetypal pattern of a whole poem. This poem, like some of Ibn Gabirol's and Milton's poems, confronts the theological and poetic problem of how to fuse the Biblical personalistic conception of God with a Neo-Platonic conception. In what follows, I will examine the poetic issues involved in such a fusion, in the short masterpiece "Here Comes the Sun" by the Thirteenth Century Armenian poet, Kostandin of Erznka. My analysis is a by-product of my association with James Russell in 1990, then at Columbia University, and heavily relies on his paper (Russell, 1987).1
Now this night is past:
The morning's sign has come,
And the shining star rises,
Herald of the light.
The darkness was rejected
And all the world rejoiced,
Calling blessings to each other
That they were worthy of the light.
For them who had been captive
And in the deep dungeon's dark
Now the light is born
In the great light of the Sun.
The earth was cold and frozen
By the icy winter blast,
But Spring has come at last,
In the great light of the Sun.
The earth has come to life,
Mountain and plain are mantled in green,
And the trees burst into flower
In the great light of the Sun.
Flowers in all the nations
Are adorned in every color.
And the red rose opens
In the great light of the sun.
The fountains of the waters
Burst bubbling forth in laughter,
And the rivers rushing churn
In the great light of the Sun.
All the creatures that are,
And those that lay unsouled and dead
Behold! they are revived
In the great light of the Sun.
How are you not amazed?
Why do you not ask of these things,
About this Sun
Full of its shining light?
This new light for us has dawned,
Far brighter than the Sun,
And to its mighty luminescence
The elder stars are servants.
A beam brimming light was born
Of that light, of that beginning,
Light born from light,
From the great light of the Sun.
This light is of that light
Which is itself lord of all light
And is called king.
And the light of all is from his light.
The arc of heaven stood amazed
Before that Sun,
For it had never seen such light
Nor the Sun from that light.
The earth was happy,
Glad at the tidings that
The duskless great light has dawned,
And the Sun of that light.
Some are soulless, without understanding,
Blind in their eyes,
Who believe not
In the Sun and its light.
In darkness they drag out their lives,
Asleep in dreams
They share no light
From the Sun, from the great light.
I believe not
In that lying spirit, that it is light itself
And no beam stretches from the Sun
From the great light.
I, Kostandin, who wrote this
Long for that light,
That I may be enlightened
In the Sun, in that great light.
Armenian tradition thus regards Christ and God as the Sun of Righteousness; Mary is Sun-like or else a receptacle of the Sun's fire. The light emanates from, but is not different from, the endless light of the Father (Russell, 1987: 123).I shall argue that in the poem under discussion, such allegoric equivalences are integrated into an infinitely rich and complex symbolic structure.
The word symbol is derived from a Greek word referring to a thing broken into two, to be used later as a means for mutual identification. Thus, a symbol does not suggest a this-stands-for-that type of relationship, but rather a relationship in which the various members complete each other so as to form a whole. In other words, the symbol becomes a node, a point of intersection of two or more planes of reality.2
Consider the following example. In a hierarchic conception of the Universe, one may conceive of a variety of processes as of concentric cycles: the day, the year and the life-cycle. Thus, the four stages of each of these cycles become analogous to each other, respectively: morning, noon, evening, night; spring, summer, autumn, winter; birth, maturity, old age, death. The stages of the first two, but not of the external cycle are more or less rigidly fixed. In the latter we sometimes find childhood, youth, maturity, old age, and other variations as well. Accordingly, we sometimes encounter what Aristotle called proportional metaphors such as the evening of his life, or the winter of his life for "old age". Such metaphors are, then, generated by an intersection of two or more "parallel" cycles. As I have suggested, in symbol too we may find an intersection of these three or more planes of reality. Thus, one could imagine a case when the three parallel stages of the three cycles coincide and reinforce each other's effect, as when one is born, in the morning, at springtime. In the poem under consideration, the three parallel cycles converge in the appearance of light, lending to each other exceptional force indeed. In the first three lines of stanza 1, we have the appearance of the morning, with its morning-star, as opposed to night and darkness: "Now this night is past: / The morning's sign has come, / And the shining star rises". In stanzas 2 and 3 we have again the light, but this time indicating spring and the renewal of the life of the vegetation (as opposed to winter): "The earth was cold and frozen / By the icy winter blast, / But Spring has come at last", and "The earth has come to life, / Mountain and plain are mantled in green, / And the trees burst into flower / In the great light of the Sun". Apparently, birth occurs in this poem only as a metaphoric predication of light, as in "Now the light is born" (in stanza 2) or "A beam brimming light was born" (in stanza 6). Thus viewed, these expressions are not very different from e.g. "The earth has come to life", where it serves as a metaphor for, say, "(sudden) appearance". Bearing however in mind the allegoric scheme of the poem, born has here a rather different status: if light stands here for the son, it is Christ who is born (disregarding even the fact that he was born in December). Thus, paradoxically, the various cycles are parallel and intersecting at one and the same time.
LIGHT as a Bundle of Attributes
In the poem under discussion light is the sustained image in which the various planes of reality converge (i.e., the sustained symbol). It is conceived of as of a bundle of attributes that determine the various meaning potentials of the image. Let us consider, then, briefly, some of these potentials.
LIGHT AS METONYMY As the foregoing exercise may suggest, then, light is a metonymy of morning (as opposed to night), and a metonymy of spring (as opposed to winter). It may also be regarded as a metonymy of open, unconstrained space (as opposed to caverns, dungeons, graves and other subterrenean enclosures; cf. in our poem, "And in the deep dungeon's dark / Now the light is born"). One possible role of dungeon in this poem is to reinforce, by way of opposition, light.
LIGHT AS SIGHT The most obvious feature of light is
that it affords our sense of sight, which is the most
highly differentiated sense of human beings (who, after
all, are the users of symbols as we know them). 3
Sight gives us that kind of information
about the world with the help of which things appear
to remain the same while we go away and return. 4
Thus, light becomes the most important single condition for affording human activities in the physical world. Consequently, sight is felt to be the most rational of our senses. When human beings immediately experience some supersensuous reality, they don't have a readily available conceptual language to describe their experience. For this end they usually have recourse to some kind of metaphoric or symbolic language. One of the most prominent ways to do this is to indicate some sense-perception proper, and to cancel in some metaphoric or other way, the physical elements in the process. The most readily available and most readily conventionalizable way to do this seems to have recourse to the sense of sight. That is why such archetypal "seers" as Tiresias are traditionally "pictured" as physically blind (physical blindness cancels the visual element in verbs that denote seeing).
THE SOURCE OF LIFE Light is frequently treated in religion and literature as the symbol of life. This is no mere convention, but the exploitation of one of the natural potentials of light. It is a commonplace that the sun is the source of all life on earth, and the sun is the greatest and most obvious natural source of light on earth. This is most obviously true with respect to vegetation, and is also emphatically reflected in our poem: "The earth has come to life, / Mountain and plain are mantled in green, / And the trees burst into flower / In the great light of the Sun". On the human level too it is quite obvious that a continuous deprivation of sun is quite hostile to life. But much more immediately, on mere slight contact, it is intensely perceptible that darkness is hostile, whereas light is favorable to unrestrained life-activities.
PHYSICAL ATTRIBUTES OF LIGHT Light is thing-free energy that spreads ("emanates") in space. It has, as a rule, no stable contours or characteristic shape. It does not even have an identity, that is, what can be identified as the same entity on several occasions. One light can be "swallowed" by another light, and become indistinguishable from it. Thus, light can easily change its "identity" without -- paradoxically -- really changing it. This "fluidity" may account for some of its major potentials both for the mystic and the poet.
Types of Relationship
Each attribute in this "bundle of attributes" can be developed in a different direction, suggesting different meanings. These are by no means expected to be thoroughly compatible with one another. On the contrary, rather. In true symbolism it is the poetic image rather than the planes of reality suggested that has unity, consistency, and apparently real existence. In allegory it is rather easy to move to the plane of reality suggested, abandoning the physical image itself. Attention is focussed on that aspect of the image that points toward the other plane of reality; the rest of its aspects are easily ignored by the perceiver. In a symbol, as I have suggested, a considerable number of (incompatible) planes of reality converge in one physical image, related to a variety of its attributes: whenever attention is focussed on one plane of reality and the image's aspect that suggests it, the other aspects of the physical image cannot be "abandoned" because they are anchored, as it were, by the respective planes of reality suggested by them. This multiplicity of potential meanings, based on a multiplicity of attributes, is further complicated by the fact that there may be different kinds of relationships between the image and the plane of reality suggested.
ALLEGORY The most obvious kind of relationship between the central image of our poem and another plane of reality is, of course, allegorical. I have quoted above Russell who suggests that "Armenian tradition thus regards Christ and God as the Sun of Righteousness". Apparently, such an identification has a considerable element of arbitrariness in it. 5 All allegory is based on some such "arbitrary" decision; more precisely, it is usually based on the arbitrary isolation and over-emphasis of one of the natural properties of the image.
THE NATURAL BASIS OF SYMBOLISM Symbolic meanings that have been based on those properties of light which I have mentioned under the heading "light as a Bundle of Attributes" can be said to have a natural basis. For expository purposes, one may distinguish here between those relationships in which light is part of (the day, the spring), and those in which the attributes are part of the light. Now, why should the sun be identified with either Christ and God or with Righteousness? 6 What is it that facilitates or even encourages "the willing suspension of disbelief" in such an identification? Why is it that God (or the chief god) is identified in so many unrelated cultures with precisely the sun? This last question, if its presupposition is valid, suggests that there must be something in the natural potentials of light and the sun that would justify such an identification. I submit that this justification must be sought in what I have said above of the sun as the source of all life, and of light (as opposed to darkness) as one of the most important conditions that are favorable to life. Another aspect of the natural basis of light symbolism concerns certain relationships between the celestial bodies that are not unlike certain relationships between figures in the New Testament. Thus, for instance, in stanza 1 we read: "The morning's sign has come, / And the shining star rises, / Herald of the light". Following this natural relationship, the morning star can be taken, in a rather arbitrary manner, to signify Saint John the Baptist, who heralded the birth of Christ. Likewise, there are among the celestial bodies "the great light" and "the small light", the light of the latter being derived from the former. This may be one way to explain such verses in stanza 6 as "This light is of that light / [...] And the light of all is from his light": everything, and particularly the moon, receives its light from the sun, just as the Son's light is derived from the Father's. In other words, though the allegorical decision to take one thing as standing for another has an arbitrary conventional element in it, it still has, very frequently, some natural basis that makes it prone to facilitate "the willing suspension of disbelief".
EMANATION Neo-Platonic Philosophy uses some of the physical attributes of light to account for the creation of the Universe. According to this conception, the Universe was created by light that emanated from a certain source: the nearer the light to its source, the more spiritual its "matter"; the further away from it, the less spiritual it is.
THE TRANSLATION OF A NAME The name Lucifer is derived from Latin lux. Russell suggests that the lines "I believe not / In that lying spirit, that it is light itself / And no beam stretches from the Sun / From the great light" could at least be interpreted as referring to Lucifer ("that lying spirit"), though this iterpretation seems unlikely to him.
LIGHT AS LIGHT I have earlier suggested that light and sight may serve as metaphors for some supersensuous perception, when some metaphoric contradiction or allusion to physical blindness cancels the physical element in sight. A rather sophisticated twist occurs in such a conception, when the blind Tiresias accuses Oedipus of blindness. A similar use of blindness occurs in Kostandin's poem too: "Some are soulless, without understanding, / Blind in their eyes, / Who believe not / In the Sun and its light. / In darkness they drag out their lives". Such a conception may corroborate Russell's comment on the last stanza that rather than Lucifer, "the fallen son of the morning", "the 'lying spirit' may be [...] the physical light that is no metaphor" (Russell, 1987: 123). Notice that this reading seems to be applicable, even when omitting (as I have omitted) the noun phrase "the sun-god of the sun worshippers".7 It might be illuminating to summarize here, what happens to light in this respect, throughout the poem. Light is introduced as physical light, originated in the rising Sun. Sun receives particular emphasis in stanza 5, when this Sun is substituted for the Sun, probably conferring to it some symbolic significance. This possibility is corroborated by the sequel, at the end of the stanza. Perceptually, however, there seems to be a difference between just light and this light, that is merely a difference in degree: "This new light for us has dawned, / Far brighter than the Sun". In view of our foregoing discussion of the nature of contours of entities like light and fire, one might even suggest that the two lights (the brighter and the less bright) fuse, so-to-speak: the exact contours of their identities are not observed. Eventually, however, if Russell's or my interpretation is correct, the last stanza "subtracts" as it were light in the plain, physical sense, and fosters only light in the symbolic sense to be admired and worshipped.
Light is associated in this poem, it has been suggested, with God and the Son. The act of association is, in a sense, arbitrary. In another sense, it is justified by the natural life-giving potential of light. Once, however, associated, this "allegorical" light begins to behave as physical light in many respects that may be irrelevant to the life-giving-aspect of light. Thus, for instance, I have suggested earlier that light is thing-free energy that spreads ("emanates") in space. What is more, light has "no stable contours or characteristic shape", so "light-entities" may fuse with one another or be separated one out of the other, in a rather natural way. One should attempt to consider the allegoric identification of God-the-Father and of the Son with Light, as the encoding of the identities of the personal Deity in such a way that it can imperceptibly fuse the many into one, derive the one from the other by way of emanation. According to Russell, the following lines (and others) suggest that God creates the Son by emanation: "Light born from light, / From the great light of the Sun. / This light is of that light / Which is itself lord of all light". This technique serves both to enhance the multiplicity-in-oneness of the Trinity, and to telescope this conception of the personal Creator into the Neo-Platonic conception of Creation, without violating the sense of his individual contours. I shall argue later that this encoding of the personal Deity into Light, that has the afore-said physical properties, may also be conducive to the mystical experience associated with this poem.
The present conception will illuminate another prominent feature of this poem (and, in fact, of much mystical poetry). It will be noticed that Light is treated in this poem in a way that would seem to be outrageous by any logical standard. The word Light is repeated throughout this poem, without proper indication that the various tokens of the word have different referents. At the same time, they occur in such syntactic positions that they cannot be assumed to have the same referent. Such phrases as "Light born from light" may serve as good examples to this. This verbal technique is very wide-spread in religious, and especially, in mystical poetry. Its gist appears to be the encoding of different signifiés in the same signifiant, thus indicating -- or even serving as an icon of -- the "essential paradox of the one and the many". In the present instance, however, a special kind of verbal signifiant is used, light, indicating a thing-free and Gestalt-free quality. To indicate the possible significance of such a signifiant to mystical poetry, or mystical experience in general, I wish to quote at some length a passage from Ehrenzweig who, in turn, quotes Bergson:
What Bergson calls Metaphysical intuition is a gestalt-free vision, capable of superimposed perception. Let us hear his own masterful description of surface and depth vision:
"When I direct my attention inward to contemplate my own self [...] I perceive at first, as a crust solidified at the surface, all the perceptions which come to it from the material world. These perceptions are clear, distinct, juxtaposed or juxtaposable one with another; they tend to group themselves into objects. [...] But if I draw myself in from the periphery towards the centre [...] I find an altogether different thing. There is beneath these sharply cut crystals and this frozen surface a continuous flux which is not comparable to any flux I have ever seen. There is a succession of states each of which announces that which follows and contains that which precedes it. In reality no one begins or ends, but all extend into each other".
Bergson recognizes that juxtaposition is essential for surface perception, but not for depth perception. To achieve intuition he gives a practical recipe; he recommends one to visualize at the same time a diversity of objects in superimposition.
"By choosing images as dissimilar as possible, we shall prevent any one of them from usurping the place of the intuition it is intended to call up, since it would then be driven away at once by its rivals. By providing that, in spite of their differences of aspects, they all require from the mind the same kind of attention [...] we shall gradually accustom consciousness to a particular and clearly defined disposition" (Ehrenzweig, 1965: 34-35).
The Rebirth Archetype
Finally, I would like to have a closer look at a subset of the elements we discussed in relation to the light and the sun as the source of life or, at least, what affords life. In many mythologies and religions (if there be a difference between them) the god that dies and resurrects (or is reborn) is intimately associated with the yearly cycle of vegetation that dies and is reborn. I shall not get here involved in the dispute whether Jungian archetypes are transmitted in the structure of the brain, or are acquired emotional patterns at best, or nonexistent. I shall only point out that the Rebirth Archetype may turn out to be the final organizing principle of the symbolic material condensed in this short poem. In the perspective of this archetype, the various planes of reality among which we have established by now a partial identity, may assume a total identity.
The only image that seems to be only loosely connected to the poem is that of the dungeon, as a possible opposite to light: "For them who had been captive / And in the deep dungeon's dark / Now the light is born". The Rebirth Archetype would tighten its relationship to the dominant imagery of the poem. In her mind-expanding book Archetypal Patterns in Poetry, Maud Bodkin examines the nature and structure of Jungian archetypes and their occurrence in some of the major poems of Western Literature. From her illuminating discussions I shall quote only two relatively short passages, from her discussions of Coleridge's "Ancient Mariner" and "Kubla Khan". Bodkin's very notion of emotional symbolism suggests that she is not so much interested in what images mean as in what images feel like. By the same token, she suggests how such images assume their power to effect us "on mere slight contact". In discussing the emotional symbolism of caverns and abyss, Bodkin writes:
Here is the "eternal essence" gathered from experiences of cavern and abyss -- an essence of cold, darkness, and stagnant air, from which imagination may fashion a place of punishment, the home of the Evil One (Bodkin, 1963: 101).
In discussing the Death-and-Rebirth Archetype in Coleridge's "Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner", Bodkin discusses a wide range of mental events, and then summarizes:
I have compared, also, myth and the metaphor of religious confession and of psychological exposition, selecting material in accordance of similarity of imagery, especially of form or pattern. Particular words and images [...] have been examined for their emotional symbolism, but mainly with reference to their capacity to enter into an emotional sequence. Within the image-sequence examined the pattern appears of a movement, downward, or inward, the earth's centre, or a cessation of movement -- a physical change which, as we urge a metaphor closer to the impalpable forces of life and soul, appears also a transition toward severed relation with the outer world, and, it may be, toward disintegration and death. This element in the pattern is balanced by a movement upward and outward -- an expansion or outburst of activity, a transition toward reintegration and life-renewal (Bodkin, 1963: 54).
I wish, however, to emphasize one all-important thing: the Death-and-Rebirth archetype is not the meaning, but the over-all emotional pattern, the organizing principle of the poem's imagery.
Finally, I wish briefly to consider one more issue. Some Soviet Armenian scholars seemed to have difficulties in digesting mystic, religious poetry. Russell mentions some such scholarly attitudes, and also gives the proper answer to them.
One often hears the suggestion, as in the Introduction to the recent bilingual edition of Kostandin Erznkats'i, that the tenth century St. Grigor Narekats'i was the founder of a kind of secularizing Renaissance. His scenes of natural beauty, and those of Kostandin Erznkats'i and others after him, are considered the product of a poetic inspiration lacking any genuine underlying religious faith; the allegory is disingenuous. According to this view, the expression of religious sentiments should be ignored or derided as primitive, and allegory must in poems of real talent be seen as defensive, as if the poet introduced it only after coming to himself, following a blind, pagan fit of untrammeled creativity [...]. The monolithic power of the church is fooled, and Kostandin and his fellows are emulated; Armenian literature becomes an underground phenomenon of atheist or naturalist subtexts [...]. The theory thus imposes the circumstances of the present time upon a remote age [...]. For Kostandin, as for other medieval Armenian poets, Nature was informed by the reality of the Christian spiritual world and history of salvation, which imposed order upon, and infused meaning, all phenomena and all events, past, present, and future (Russell, 1987, 120-21).I agree completely with Russell's postion. I only wanted to add here that my foregoing analysis strongly suggests that the poem has a considerable unity and integrity, however conceived by the poet. The only part that makes the impression of some later addition is the last stanza. But this, too, is an impression, a perceived quality, derived from the change of the speaker's tone; if the speaker throughout the poem is some unidentified bard, who is speaking on behalf of all believers, or perhaps all humankind, the last stanza speaks on behalf of Kostandin's own person.
The last chapter of this paper has been an inquiry into the poetic structure of a thirteenth century mystic poem by an Armenian poet. By the same token, it illuminated a wide range of additional issues. In the first place, it had certain things to say about the structure of mystical poetry in general. Secondly, this structure also threw some light on the manner in which mystical poetry in several monotheistic religions, in various periods and poetic traditions may attempt to handle the fusion of the Biblical notion of a personal Creator and the Neo-Platonic notion of light-emanation. Third and not least, our foregoing reading may suggest that a general understanding of how mystical poems work may facilitate the handling of such poetry by a reader who is not knowledgeable in the specific religious conventions of the particular poem in question.
To Sum up
This paper has explored the cognitive foundations and the literary applications of spatial imagery. There seem to be several good reasons to have recourse to spatial imagery; this paper has explored two of them. On the one hand, concrete visual images constitute a bundle of features and as such, they allow efficient coding of information. This, in turn, grants the cognitive system great flexibility and efficiency both in creative thinking and in poetry. A single image encoding a variety of meaning units can be regarded as an instance of the aesthetic principle "unity-in-variety". This also can be said to save considerable mental energy, and as Kris and Gombrich (1965) pointed out following Freud, one possible source of pleasure is the saving of mental energy. Or, as Charles Peirce and Umberto Eco would put it in semiotic terms, such a coding substitutes a single predicate for a complicated tangle of predicates, replacing a complicated feeling "by a single feeling of greater intensity" (Eco, 1979: 132). On the other hand, the recoding of information into spatial imagery may help the cognitive system to overcome some of its inherent limitations. Thus, lowly differentiated information may be recoded into a more differentiated spatial template, as in the case of sound pitch into musical scales; or conceptually presented information may become less differentiated in perception, owing to recoding into Gestalt-free and thing-free imagery. Such lowly-differentiated qualities may be reinforced by the mechanisms of spatial orientation, or the mechanisms for alleviating cognitive overload. From such a perspective, the Lakoffean conception of conceptual metaphor based on spatial imagery appears to be congenial to human cognition, but still rather simplistic. In the course of the above discussions I attempted to show how religious ideas are turned with the help of figurative language into verbal imitations of religious experience. In this respect, I have pointed out two stylistic modes. Perhaps the most surprising thing about those two modes is the recognition how similar are the techniques by which the opposite effects are achieved. One of them, the Metaphysical mode, seeks to yield an insight into matters of religious significance or the nature of existence in a flash, through a sudden transition from complexity to unity. The phenomenological quality of this kind of insight is typically witty. The other mode, best described as "Romantic" or "Mystic", seeks to achieve the verbal imitation of some experiential contact, of an intuitive rather than conceptual nature, with some reality that lies beyond the absolute limit of our experience. Some poems, at least, are remarkably successful in translating those mystic ideas into verbal imitations of mystic experiences.
1. Professor James Russel and myself stumbled into each other at the department samovar when I was a visiting professor at the Department of Near-Eastern Studies, Columbia University, and had a long conversation on religion and literature. In all possible issues we had opposite approaches, then and since, my approach being cognitive, linguistic, structuralist, while his approach might be best described as historical, philological, and "influence-hunting". Nonetheless, we found our encounter most mind-expanding, and he asked me to meet his graduate students so as to expose them to my approach. The discussion of Kostandin's poem, based on Russel's literal translation, is an attempt to sharpen the difference between our two approaches, by directly responding to one of his published papers.
2. Thus, whereas in allegory
the sensuous image points away from itself to a different
plane of reality, in symbol the various planes of reality
converge in, and thus point to, the sensuous image.
3. Had bats used symbols, presumably the radar would have fulfilled a similar function; with dogs, possibly, the scents.
4. This is true, to a lesser extent, of the tactile sense too. But this sense gives usually information concerning a relatively small section of a larger object; and the kind of information it gives is less prone to afford us uniquely to identify objects on slight contact.
5. The argument "It is a convention" does not eliminate arbitrariness, merely transfers the "mystery" from one place to another. Now we have to answer the question, "Why did people identify in the first place God with light, and how did this identification become a convention?"
6. In some Mediaeval paintings God is depicted as radiating light. This may also be the reason for kings and rulers to wear a golden crown into which gems and jewels are inserted: it makes their head luminescent.
7. In that case, the passage may be thought of as conveying the Platonic notion of regarding sensuous reality as "lying" as opposed to supersensuous reality.
8. I have discussed this and additional techniques with reference to what some critics describe as "Whitman's Meditative Catalogue" (Tsur, 1992: 416-428), as part of my discussion of "Poetry and Altered States of Consciousness" (411-470). I have also given a reading of "Kubla Khan" as an ecstatic poem in my book (Tsur, 1987).
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