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Forms of Reticence

Written by

Saskia Hamilton
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Year

2009

This article originally appeared in issue 36 of American Poet, the biannual journal of the Academy of American Poets. To subscribe to American Poet, become a member online.

Penciled in the margin of The Works of Virgil (1838), a Latin textbook that Emily Dickinson shared with a school-friend, is

Oh for a lodge in some vast wilderness.

A wish for relief from the task of Latin studies, perhaps. But it is also curiously evocative of Dickinson's later work – the many poems about that primary form of shelter, the house, and all her figures for hiding. It is the first line of "The Time-Piece," the second book of William Cowper's The Task, first published in 1785.

Oh for a lodge in some vast wilderness,
Some boundless contiguity of shade,

he writes, before we know the cause of his longing. The exhalation at the start of the pentameter line – "Oh" – makes the line draw a long breath out. The second line also requires a single breath. Something in that vast wilderness troubles him; he feels exposed, so he borrows cover from two allusions: Jeremiah's "Oh that I had in the wilderness a lodging place of wayfaring men" (9:2); and Milton's gloom that the angels create to drive Satan and his army from heaven (the angels spread their wings "with dreadful shade contiguous" (Paradise Lost VI: 827–28). It takes work to build this hut; he is short of breath.

Although The Task is not a reticent poem, allusion can be a form of reticence. And the reticence that accompanies melancholy was well known to Cowper. His fear of its recurrence lies in his longing for shelter. It is an interesting feature of another set of Cowper's poems, also prompted by biblical text, that Dickinson knew well – those contributions he made to The Olney Hymns (1779) that were reproduced in hymnals owned by the Dickinson family. [Walking with God] begins with an "Oh":

Oh for a closer Walk with God,
   A calm and heav'nly frame

[Joy and Peace in Believing] imagines how God will feed the hungry and cover the exposed:

Who gives the lilies clothing
   Will clothe his people too.
Beneath the spreading heavens,
   No creature but is fed;
And he who feeds the ravens,
   Will give his children bread.

Many of Cowper's hymns, written toward the end of his nine-year Evangelical period, record the struggle of a soul against depression. They differ from most other hymns that Dickinson knew because, as Donald Davie has pointed out, Cowper was a member of a congregation, not the leader of one – and so "at the centre of Cowper's hymns is not doctrine, but experience – as we recognize when we reflect that as God moves 'in his mysterious way,' among the 'wonders' that he performs is the peculiar fate of intermittent suicidal depression with which he has visited the poet."

In a recent study of Dickinson's prosody, Christine Ross agrees with several Dickinson scholars "that the case for the pervasive influence of hymns, in general, and [Isaac] Watts in particular, has been overstated." There is evidence in Dickinson's letters that what Cristianne Miller calls Dickinson's "aural aesthetic" thought in units different from the pentameter line (closer to the shorter lines of common meter). In a letter to Joseph Lyman, Dickinson wrote out the following lines from Antony and Cleopatra:

                                                            heart,
   Which in the scuffles of great fights hath burst
   The buckles on his breast,

as

   heart that in the scuffles of
   great fights hath burst the
   buck[l]e on his breast

Ross and others may be right to be suspicious of finding too easy an explanation of Dickinson's prosody in the model of, or in an argument with, the hymn, as they qualify early Dickinson studies. Even so, perhaps some attention could be paid to the hymns of William Cowper, particularly for his reliance on the reticence of half rhyme.

Paul Muldoon recently asked Seamus Heaney about his attraction to half rhyme. It "creates a little dissonance," Heaney replied; it "puts a doubt" over things, "quiets and mutes" things. Cowper's hymns were written just before another depression (one that left him in such despair that he never again entered a church), and we can hear in his use of rhyme the doubting and muting of the illness. Take, for example, his hymn "The Shining Light":

   My former hopes are fled,
   My terror now begins;
I feel, alass! that I am dead
   In trespass and sins.

   Ah, wither shall I fly?
   I hear the thunder roar;
The law proclaims destruction nigh,
   And vengeance at the door.

   When I review my ways,
   I dread impending doom;
But sure, a friendly whisper says,
   'Flee from the wrath to come.'

   I see, or think I see,
   A glimm'ring from afar;
A beam of day that shines for me,
   To save me from despair.

   Fore-runner of the sun,
   It marks the Pilgrim's way;
I'll gaze upon it while I run,
   And watch the rising day.

"The Shining Light," an inner light that is the "forerunner of the sun," occupies the hours just before daybreak – a time of morning in which Cowper seems to have written several hymns. In December 1767 (the darkest winter month), he writes to an aunt about the composition of another hymn:

I return you many Thanks for the Verses you favor'd me with, which speak sweetly the Language of a Christian Soul. I wish I could pay you in kind, but must be contented to pay you in the best kind I can. I began to compose them Yesterday Morning before Daybreak, but fell asleep at the End of the first two Lines, when I awaked again the third and fourth were whisper'd to my Heart in a way which I have often experienced.

Oh for a closer Walk with God,
   A calm & heav'nly Frame,
A Light to shine upon the Road
    That leads me to the Lamb!

He records that he was awake in the night and, as one can infer from his longing for "calm," agitated. "Frame" is disposition or nature, but it is also the frame or structure of faith. Perhaps if he spoke "the language of a Christian soul," he might be permitted to walk in a calm body under the shelter of faith. He could only write two lines before falling asleep, however. When he awoke in daylight, he heard as if from a dream the next two lines, about a light on the road that leads him, if anywhere, to the half rhyme – and therefore the surprise – of "Lamb." The lines were "whisper'd to my Heart in a way which I have often experienced."

In "The Shining Light," there is also a voice:

When I review my ways,
   I dread impending doom;
But sure, a friendly whisper says,
   'Flee from the wrath to come.'

He is less certain of this voice, less certain he has heard it correctly. "But sure" signals that he is not sure. The next two lines confirmed his doubt:

I see, or think I see,
A glimm'ring

He has to strain to see. The lack of certainty is reflected formally in the half rhymes:

   When I review my ways,
   I dread impending doom;
But sure, a friendly whisper says,
   'Flee from the wrath to come.'

   I see, or think I see,
   A glimm'ring from afar;
A beam of day that shines for me,
   To save me from despair.

Cowper doesn't hear in the voice a convincing whole rhyme that would accord with his words – and rightly so, since it is a whisper, since he is in a state of terror. The voice warns him of the danger he is in. However, the poem enacts in its rhyming the speaker's uncertainty about accepting the message of grace. Whole rhyme allows a vowel sound to be met: "see" comes to "me." But half rhyme is, as Ephraim Chambers phrased it, "a Similitude with a Difference" (1680). It is sometimes called "near-rhyme" because it maintains a distance – as if to hope that "doom" might not "come"; as if what is "afar" will save him from the close proximity of "despair." And yet the distance is not great – "doom" and "despair" nip the heels of "come" and "afar."

Emily Dickinson makes use of the reticence of half rhyme throughout her work. "There's a certain Slant of light" (#320 Fr; 1862) begins as we might expect a hymn to begin:

Sometimes a light surprizes
The christian while he sings;
      – Cowper, "Joy and Peace in Believing"
There's a certain Slant of light –
Winter Afternoons –
      – Dickinson

The shadow in Cowper's hymn lies in the word sometimes. Dickinson's shadow falls in the third line:

It is the LORD who rises
With healing in his wings:
      – Cowper
That oppresses, like the Heft
Of Cathedral Tunes –
      – Dickinson

We might expect to hear about a "Light" that lifts our hearts to the "LORD" but instead find a "light" bearing down on us. Among the many brilliant effects of Dickinson's first stanza is the half rhyme of "light" and "Heft." One has to enunciate the t to hear it. And one has to see that weight is capitalized but light – not just its illumination but, we suddenly feel, its weight – is not. (As Christopher Ricks observes, one can't say a capital letter.) The half rhyme creates a distance between the intent and the effect of a tune heard in the house of God, between bearing witness of the Light (John 1:7) and bearing the light.

After his first conversion, Cowper knew "many a lifeless and unhallowed hour since – long intervals of darkness interrupted by short returns of joy, and peace in believing," as he wrote in Adelphi, a spiritual memoir. In "The Contrite Heart," he speaks of a sentiment close to Dickinson's:

   Thy saints are comforted I know
   And love thy house of pray'r;
I therefore go where others go,
   But find no comfort there.

In "Joy and Peace in Believing," however, the speaker feels a "short return," and the light of God has

healing in his wings

to restore spiritual wholeness. In Dickinson's poem, the light gives a "Heavenly Hurt," and

We can find no scar,

It leaves no mark, we might think. But a scar is a mark of healing. That we can't find one is a sign that the wound is not only invisible, but open.

Graphic marks are more reticent than half rhymes in Dickinson's poems and not only because they can't be said. In her idiosyncratic system of punctuation, her use of the dash – that "expression of the indefinite or fragmentary," as Coleridge called it – is ubiquitous, but it has many and different specific effects. In the final stanza of the poem, the rhymes are whole, but the dashes are worthy of attention:

When it comes, the Landscape listens –
Shadows – hold their breath –
When it goes, 'tis like the Distance
On the look of Death –

To listen is to be intent upon a sound and is anticipatory, whereas to hear is passive (if a sound surrounds us – a hymn, say, that we don't join in singing – we can't help but hear it). The landscape listens, as it were, for the length or duration of the light. If readers are intent upon the sound of the words and the visual cue of Dickinson's dashes, shortness of breath is induced. We must pause to hear a sound so faint it may only be visible – for the shadows are intent upon light (and it is light that gives them definition). What do they anticipate? When the light passes, their edges will be erased. They will vanish. Or will they have complete dominion? The poem does not say. Breath shortens as thought moves forward:

When it comes, the Landscape listens –
Shadows – hold their breath –

It then lengthens:

When it goes, 'tis like the Distance
On the look of Death –

No half rhymes in this stanza; and yet, though the rhymes join, Dickinson still marks a distance. There is the distance of the simile (which resists the complete transformation of a metaphor). And there is not only the "look" but also the sound of death. A common feature of dying from illness, when someone passes into a coma, is that breath comes very quickly at a certain moment – it seems a panic – then calms and becomes immensely slow in its very long receding and withdrawing. The life gone out of someone's eyes marks an unmistakable distance, however – like late afternoon light suddenly dropping. If we attend to the whole rhymes and the interruptions of breath, we cannot stand remote from the poem, even as the dead withdraw to their distance.

But the degree of remoteness of the speaker and reader from the dead is marked by a dash, as if to remind us that we pause, only to resume. The whole rhymes at the ends of lines mark a closure in sound. The dash at the end of the sentence leaves the sense open, ajar.


Cowper's work on the Olney Hymns ended when one of the voices whispering to him told him he was damned, irrevocably. It sealed him up in silence. He became ill disposed to speech, and no letters are extant for nearly four years. "Reticence," according to the O.E.D., can mean "the disposition to say little," "the maintenance of silence," and "the avoidance of saying too much." Each of these has a different relationship to silence: one that is closed; one that is open; one that conceals; one that is in principle sensitive. Cowper's correspondence resumed, eventually, with short notes thanking a friend for mackerel, offering to send melons in return, signaling the return of appetite. He eventually found his way to an open silence, one that can "indulge / The dreams of fancy, tranquil and secure." In The Task, "when winter soaks the fields," he writes, he would go for walks. One day he

   went forth, and found, till then unknown,
A cottage, whither oft we since repair:
      – "The Sofa"

It is "itself unseen," and "Peeps at the vale below," like the poet. It is a shelter, a lodge in the wilderness, where he can come and go. The cottage in its concealment is a figure for the retirement that allowed him to write The Task, "Epitaph on a Hare," "The Castaway," other great poems, and his famous correspondence. He became interested in how "to make verse speak the language of prose," as he wrote in a letter, and his work in blank verse pointed the way for Coleridge and Wordsworth.

However much he anticipated the Romantics, Cowper was not one of them, and he was not overly given to the dash, the rest so favored by them and by Dickinson. But its suggestive, silent pointing shows up in a story about Cowper during his later years. Despite the geniality and calm he prized and attained in poems and letters, he often fell under the shadow of melancholy. Friends from his former life who noticed this were puzzled by his rejection of the consolations of faith. He answered them with a reticence, a reserve born of a sensitivity that neither offended them nor surrendered his principles. "This is strange – you will think me mad – ," he wrote to the Rev. John Bull in 1782, "but I am not mad, most noble Festus, I am only in despair." Such was his remove from his former beliefs, such was his conviction that his could not be a house of prayer, that "I have not even asked a blessing on my food these ten years." Indeed, when grace was said at mealtimes, "he would sit down and take his knife and fork in his hand, to signify that he had no part in the exercise," Bull's son wrote. "My father often witnessed this."