Gleam and darkness

A review of John Hollander's 'The Substance of Shadow'

Right: Ferdinand Olivier and Heinrich Olivier, 'The Invention of the Art of Drawing (the daughter of Butades of Sicyon and her Lover),' 1804, pen and ink, watercolor. Via Wikimedia Commons.

The Substance of Shadow: A Darkening Trope in Poetic History

The Substance of Shadow: A Darkening Trope in Poetic History

John Hollander, edited by Kenneth Gross

University of Chicago Press 2016, 184 pages, $29.00 ISBN 978-0226354279

In Pliny’s Natural History,the original act of aesthetic representation is said to be the tracing of a lover’s shadow on a wall, an outline that would remain after that body takes its sorrowful leave. John Hollander, in his Clark Lectures — delivered in 1999 at Cambridge University and recently (and posthumously) published under the title The Substance of Shadow, edited by Kenneth Gross — does not once mention Pliny’s fable of the potter Butades and his daughter, but the story and its complex reception serve as an appropriate paradigm in Western aesthetic history for the capacity of the late poet-critic’s project. Beginning as he does with John Donne’s “A Lecture upon the Shadow,” a moralizing love poem in which shadows “are at once tropes and the literal objects of vision”[1] and which also serves as the title of his first lecture, Hollander proceeds to disentangle the relation between substance and shadow as it has unraveled in verse since the revolutionary thought of the Greeks. As in Pliny, whose tale complicates the origin of representation by narrating an (erotic) separation rather than possession, Hollander admirably narrates the dialectical relation shadow-substance by demonstrating how “neither notion will henceforth remain innocent for poetic thought” (15).

If Hollander uses for his warp several close readings of individual poems, jumping back and forth from antiquity to modernity in the process, his weft is a roughly linear history of the shadow as a trope that begins with Plato’s “reversal of substance and shadow” — using shadow to categorize all worldly appearances, even those “representing particular palpable entities” (14) — in The Republic. Thereafter, the finite stuff of experience would be the shadows of the infinite, invisible, unworldly ideal (like the fleeting shadow preserved in Pliny’s tale). Hollander produces this metaphysical formula in his first lecture, and then proceeds to chart its historical transformations as the Western Greek legacy encounters more local varieties of literary tradition. Hollander argues that the “Hellenizing of the Hebrew Bible’s shadows” (37) was a critical move from nonrepresentational use of shade as protective cover through a representational, correlationist, and hierarchical construal in the Greek-Platonic skia, to a Christian renegotiation, in Dante, where earthly shadows are conceived as umbra futurorum, predictive “of things to come” in the afterlife (47). Instead of the mere shadows of the Platonic copy-of-a-copy, with Dante and the medievals, shadows take on typological meaning, serving as scriptural ombra that stand as particular distortions of heavenly light and that can be read in anagogical terms. 

Even as Hollander’s readings move into modernity, he continually comes back to the temporal motivations of the shadow trope set up in his first major example — in Donne’s “Lecture” — where postmeridian projections contrast with premeridian trailing adumbrations on the other side of noon (that zenith Nietzsche designated the time of shortest shadow). If there is a meridian in Hollander’s history, it is probably Milton’s Paradise Lost, where the immense variety of shadows in the long poem — and the corresponding variety of ontological negations — “reflect and complicate their roles in previous poetry in English” while they would also “be extended deeply into romantic and modern poetry” (62). Hollander continually reads poems, whether long or short, as if they were themselves shadows, “both as conclusion and prelude” to preceding and succeeding creative projections. What this finally amounts to, quite compellingly, is a reading of the shadow of trope itself, never exactly categorized in schematic fashion but thematized in Blake’s Milton as the “Covering Cherub,” the inheritance of poetic tropes that overshadow the poetry of the historical present. The shadow of trope is brought to redemptive crisis by Milton’s revision of the “shades of death, apparently natural to the landscape of hell via Virgil, Dante, and Spenser” (53), in the most upsetting of Paradise Lost’s Death figures, in his underworld that leads to the proliferation of more forms of shadow and shade than had ever been written on earth.

In revealing the many permutations of shadows in poetry, Hollander stops short of linking the trope’s development to concurrent cultural or political history. His story is purely literary, and unapologetically so. Hollander traces several promising historical dialectics as he moves into the nineteenth century, though as many strands are dropped as are stitched through to some semblance of completion, a stylistic characteristic (for shadows come and go) that would likely frustrate those inclined to argumentative totality. Hollander is not a Hegelian (and Hegel is not mentioned once); he does not attempt to say everything there is to say about shadows. He discusses the confrontation with one’s own shadow in his third lecture, a trope limited in antiquity to fear rather than to the modern figure’s characteristic “delusion and folly” (83). In his fourth lecture Hollander argues — principally in readings of Wordsworth’s “On the Power of Sound,” Shelley’s “Adonais,” and Poe’s “Silence — A Fable” — that shadows came to be paradoxically associated with sound in a common nineteenth-century catachresis. Claims like this are fascinating, if incomplete without relevant music history context. Romanticism’s obsession with the magic of phantasmagoric images and faint sounds led to a variety of cross-media myths about “shadowy” acoustics, as often achieved by setting poems to music as putting music in the poem. Indeed, the development of the symphonic poem is certainly part of this story. One cannot fault Hollander for not going there, perhaps, but this is one example of the often-abrupt terminations of his most compelling thoughts as he jumps from poem to poem with ever-accelerating speed.

Yet Hollander’s quickness is also his great gift. His readers can never rest easily in the satisfaction of temporary enlightenment. Admittedly “wary of the sensational [Heideggerian] romanticizing of the etymon” (70), it is precisely Hollander’s linguistic chops that keep one on one’s toes, even as his lectures can retrospectively seem a string of etymology shops filled with precious antique curiosities. The significance of the book’s procession of terms in the European languages — bursting out of the Greek contraries skia and skotos (gleam and darkness) — amounts to the literary history glossed in Hollander’s subtitle, the way poetic language darkened into “figurative density” (119). At the end of the tour, the reader is left with the chiaroscuro of the modern/ist Gothic, “a confederation of tribes of shadow that we might loosely call Gnostic-Blakean-Yeatsian-Jungian” (124), as if the path of the trope had been moving all along toward psychoanalysis, the intellectual culmination of internalized projection. But then, in his characteristically brilliant way, Hollander shows that reading historically is as much about the parallax view as the teleological mechanism, and he ends his final lecture with Hart Crane’s Bridge: “Only in darkness is thy shadow clear.” Only in the umbra of prior poetry does the “substance of modern poetic shadow” appear, deeper and denser than before (129). Sometimes it just takes the light of readers like Hollander to know how much is still hiding in the dark. His lucidity is a model for those who might yet track the shadows cast beyond the purview of his lectures: those hovering over, within, and between the fractured domains of contemporary poetry.

1. John Hollander, The Substance of Shadow: A Darkening Trope in Poetic History,ed. Kenneth Gross (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016), 8.