I’m still in the “Symbol” chapter of the textbook, Introduction to Poetry, 7th Edition, X.J. Kennedy. I feel that in my last few analyses I jumped the gun a bit in that I glossed over the definition of “symbol” and “allegory”. (Fair warning, if you are the type to be easily bored by academic analysis of literary devices, this might be the day for you to skip.)
I picked this poem, because it so obviously has symbols in it; the title is a dead give away. It’s the perfect example of symbol (though not of allegory).
First, I wanted to reiterate what the book has said about symbol, it is the use of the concrete such as a person or a thing or a place (some go so far as to say it is an action others argue against that) to stand in for an idea. But what I haven’t made clear is that it isn’t a simple one-to-one connotation. Unlike conventional symbols (symbols agreed upon by the culture to represent something) where a black cat symbolizes bad luck, or a flag symbolizes patriotism, a literary symbol is something that comes to represent many ideas. A heart used as a conventional symbol means love, but in a story or a poem it can take on many ideas that surround love like heartbreak, ecstasy, divine love, love of country, love of one’s family, or family pet, devotion, petty jealousy, and on and on.
Though the literary symbol points toward a venue (i.e. toward love), it is not easily defined and is subject to the reader’s interpretation of the symbol. “A symbol radiates hints or casts long shadows,” the book quotes Henry James’s take on symbol. ” We are unable to say it ‘stands for’ or ‘represents’ a meaning. It evokes, it suggests, it manifests. It demands no single necessary interpretation… it points toward an indefinite meaning, which my lie in part beyond the reach of words.” says the book (page 209). So when Emily Dickinson presents us with the symbol of lightning, it could be a sign from god, an epiphany, or a emotional reaction to something she’s just learned; it could be ethereal or as common place as a sudden understanding, or a loss of ignorance.
As to allegory, where symbols take a bit of detective work to find, allegories are very clearly marked. The correspondence between object and idea becomes a little more concrete, certainly not hard to spot. A character walking around in a play with the name Everyman (or Goodman), is pretty obvious. Is every person in the audience exactly like this character? No, some are women, some are Lords and Ladies, some are devils and temptresses, but all are individuals. In other words, in allegory it’s the idea that’s flattened out and not the symbol.
But I like the paragraph in the book that explains the difference between symbol and allegory, it does the best job. “An object in allegory is like a bird whose cage is clearly lettered with its identity – ‘RAVEN, Corvus corax; habitat of specimen, ‘Maine.’ A symbol, by contrast, is a bird with piercing eyes that mysteriously appears one evening in your library. It is there; you can touch it. But what does it mean? You look at it. It continues to look at you.” (page 211)
But this is not to say that you should jump the gun either. A lot of students who read great fiction go in like a race horse speeding onto a field. They are eager to dig into it, find the symbols and excavate the meaning right away, but then miss the texture of the piece and the subtleties of what it is trying to say. It is better to be an archaeologist wading in slowly and carefully with his spades or her tooth brushes, going through the material carefully and methodically. Read the surface of the object as an object, make it prove its symbolism to you. Freud was right, sometimes it’s just a cigar. The poem that I worked on yesterday proved a good example of allowing the symbol to prove itself a symbol. It was story about a tenant trying to get a new, better contract from his landlord. It seemed pretty pedestrian until the tenant went up to Heaven to where the landlord had his mansion, that’s when I had to back up and say, “hold on, he’s not just talking about Mr. Roper who lives in Apartment 3C.” I knew then that the landlord wasn’t just a property supervisor.
The moral of the story is to not lose the object in looking for the symbol. If the object is an ancient Ming Dynasty vase, then see it as one, because as a concrete object it also has major significance in the meaning. When you hold it in your hand what does it feel like? Is it heavy or smooth? Is it sturdy or fragile? Are the pictures faded and in what manner? What has worn them away? What colors do they contain? What do they mean to you? What did they mean to that culture? These unspoken things that only those who have seen a Ming Dynasty vase up close will understand are integral to the understanding of the object as a symbol. And those who have not had that up close look will lose out on some of the vase’s meaning.
In the poem “Signs” we have various every day objects like a palm or a mirror, but to those who have never read palms, they might not understand the passage, “Spells out the lost money, the heart, the head,/ The wagging tongues, the sudden deaths…” Or has the reader had occasion to hold a mirror to a mouth? Most people have only read about it or seen it on t.v. But for those who have actually experienced it (trying to check to see if someone is still alive), there is an understanding of the subtleties of the experience, how far someone needs to hold the mirror in order to be effective, how long it actually takes, the shape of the “cloud” of breath, whether or not a pulse check is also necessary. And only palm readers understand what the significance of the heart line is to the individual that they are reading, though everyone understands that none of these lines can be smoothed like the imprint on a bed (we all have palms). Geese heading south means it’s Autumn or Fall (hm, a little word play there I think) to the observant watcher of Nature. But these signs or things we learn to read just as 1st graders learn to read words so that they can read the octagonal, red signs that tell them to stop.
I found it interesting that I had to stop and think about the line, “The plane’s X in the sky, spelling disaster.” I wondered how a plane could look X-like. This was because I had rarely seen a plane in this shape, but that’s the point, they shouldn’t look like that to us viewers standing in a field watching the sky. There seems to be a lot of falling and disasters in this poem, take a closer look and you’ll see it.
The book asks a question of the readers of the poem. In the last line there is a fly as there is in another poem listed earlier, Emily Dickinson’s “I Heard A Fly Buzz – When I Died”. It asks why does the fly seem significant in Dickinson’s poem, but not in this one? My guess was because in this poem, the fly is a symptom of a cause, it is standing for something else (a dead body I assume – like in the movies when the character is walking through a field and there is suddenly a large buzz of flies), but in the other poem it is the thing itself, it is the cause, the thing that created the turbulence. This is the difference between a concrete thing and the sign of a thing. A picture of a pipe is not a pipe, it is symbol of a pipe, it creates the idea of a pipe in the viewer’s mind, but it is paint on a canvas, not the thing itself.
I won’t argue about how words on a page are an abstraction of the thing itself (you can, go ahead, knock yourself out). I just want to establish the difference between the subject and the object that gives meaning to the subject, like in medicine the difference between the cause and the symptoms. Doctors read symptoms to learn the illness. The symptom of having frequent illnesses could mean that someone was born with a poor immune system or that the person has cancer. The cause is the thing itself, what we are trying to actually get to, but in order to get to it we need to read the symptoms, or rather, the signs.
by Gjertrud Schnackenberg
Threading the palm, a web of little lines
Spells out the lost money, the heart, the head,
The wagging tongues, the sudden deaths, in signs
We would smooth out, like imprints on a bed,
In signs that can’t be helped, geese heading south,
In signs read anxiously, like breath that clouds
A mirror held to a barely open mouth,
Like telegrams, the gathering of crowds –
The plane’s X in the dky, spelling disaster:
Before the whistle and hit, a tracer flare;
Before rubble, a hairline crack in plaster
And a housefly’s panicked scribbling on the air.