The Spell of the Song: Letters, Meaning, and English Poetry

The Spell of the Song: Letters, Meaning, and English Poetry

The Spell of the Song: Letters, Meaning, and English Poetry

The Spell of the Song: Letters, Meaning, and English Poetry


This book investigates the nature of the alphabet as a medium of communication. The general thesis is that writing is not a merely transparent or empty item like air or glass; rather, the alphabet is both modifier and enabler of meaning itself: The book investigates the general implications of this thesis.


Suppose you asked a cross section of people what they thought poetry is made of. I mean, in the same way that sculpture is made of metal or stone, film of celluloid and palpable events, music of noises, and paintings of paint. Most people would reply “words.” I would agree with them. Some indeed would take the words for granted, and so would say metaphors, people, rhythm, or feeling. I would agree with all those, too. A few more might get technical and talk about stanzas or muses and we need not deny those things, either.

Very few would reply “letters”—the letters of the alphabet, from which words are formed. Yet letters—shaped ink-marks or noises— are the one thing we do actually hear on the airwaves or see on the page. As such, they might seem the closest parallel to the stone, metal, noises, and paint of the other arts. Of course, the reason why no one would answer “letters” to our question is that, of all the things just listed, like metaphor, people, rhythm and feeling, letters alone contain no inherent meaning. This observation points at once to an old aesthetic problem in literature. Literature differs from the other arts in using a medium that is public property anyway, and one not manufactured, as pigments or violins are, simply to create objects out of its own material. Indeed literature seems to have no physical material, for the letters of the alphabet, it is said, merely form into words that adduce the meanings, which are what really count.

This book examines many angles on a single question. It may be put thus: what is it, to constitute or communicate all that we know, mean, think, and feel, and turn that into an art (poetry), by countless rearrangements of a mere twenty-six nonpictorial and seemingly meaningless material signs?

Whatever the answers, the matter has struck more than one prominent thinker with wonderment.

There is nothing so strange and at the same time so demanding as the
written word…. (It) is the intelligibility of mind transferred to the most
alien medium. Nothing is so purely the trace of the mind as writing, but

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