Conveying Complex Mental Processes in Concrete Language

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William Wordsworth’s famous preface to his Lyrical Ballads (1798) contains his much-quoted definition of good poetry:

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Since Dickinson cannot truly replicate insanity, she instead chooses to portray it as a physical sensation; imagine trying to convey the sense of a terrible headache to one who has never had one, and then the logic behind Dickinson’s choice of metaphor becomes clearer.

Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility: the emotion is contemplated till by a species of reaction the tranquility gradually disappears, and an emotion, similar to that which was before the subject of contemplation, is gradually produced, and does actually exist in the mind.

In other words, the poet’s task is to recreate an emotion or sensation from a removed point-of-view (since someone feeling intense emotions cannot pause and then carefully compose a piece of verse) and, through the language of his or her poem, replicate that emotion or sensation in the mind of the reader. This definition suits many types of poems by many types of poets: a poet who seeks to replicate a sense of sorrow, for example, can use language that will create a sense of sorrow in the reader and thus have his work meet Wordsworth’s criteria. Wordsworth’s definition does, however, raise an interesting question about those poets who seek to replicate complex mental processes, for very few people (if any at all) actually think in words or phrases (much less poetic ones), and therefore any poetic replication of an individual’s mind must, by its very nature, fall short of the process being described. Such poets offer their readers an imitation of the mind’s working—not a poetic production and then recreation of the mind itself. This makes the subject of the poet’s contemplation a difficult thing to convey, since, by its very nature, poems are ordered, grammatical, and formalized, completely unlike the human mind, which is often disordered, ungrammatical, and free-flowing.

Dickinson faced this challenge of replicating consciousness in a number of poems, among them one in which she attempts to convey the sensation of memory loss or even the loss of one’s rational powers:

I Felt a Cleaving in my Mind—
As if my Brain had split—
I tried to match it—Seam by Seam—
But could not make them fit.
The thought behind, I strove to join
Unto the thought before—
But Sequence raveled out of Sound
Like Balls—upon a Floor.

Here, the inability to think is likened to a “cleaving in the mind,” but even this is a questionable representation of the event, for to truly replicate something like the event being described would require language that created the same experience in the reader. If this happened, there would be no poem, only a scattering of images that did not form an artistic and aesthetic whole.

How a poet conveys the workings of any individual’s mind is a tricky business, but the challenge becomes greater when the poet attempts to portray a mind on the brink of insanity or a total breakdown of rationality. Even Shakespeare faced this problem: in Hamlet; for example, the title character pauses during his assault on Ophelia (and on the duplicity of women in general) to state, “Go to, I’ll no more on’t: it hath made me mad.” This moment of self-realization is certainly dramatic but psychologically suspect, for could a mind so tortured by its own destruction look outside itself and comment on its failures?

The same problem occurs in a comic vein in Twelfth Night , when Feste the clown is asked to read a letter from the “mad” Malvolio and does so in a loud and “mad” voice; after being asked by his mistress why he reads in such a tone, Feste remarks, “I do read but madness. And your ladyship will have it as it ought to be, you...

(The entire section contains 2210 words.)

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