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 Ling 131: Language & Style

Topic 3 (session A) - Patterns, Deviations, Style and Meaning > Deviation: Literary examples > Task A

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Session Overview
Overview of foregrounding, deviation and parallelism
Deviation: non - literary examples
Deviation: literary examples
Parallelism: non-literary examples
Parallelism: literary examples
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Deviation for Foregrounding Purposes - Literary examples

Task A - 'Of Mere Being'

Below are the first two lines from a poem by a famous American poet, Wallace Stevens . The poem is called 'Of Mere Being' and begins by referring to a palm tree. Each of the lines below has a head noun missing from a noun phrase.

Fill in what you think would count as normal nouns to fill these slots and compare what you thought of with what Stevens actually wrote.


In normal circumstances you would expect the slots to be filled by nouns that are semantically appropriate in the context. So you might well have written:

The palm at the end of the beach
Beyond the last hut


The palm at the end of the road
Beyond the last house

The nouns chosen in the above examples are all concrete nouns, referring to relevant objects. Abstract nouns like 'love' or 'death' feel odd, even though they would satisfy the grammatical requirements for a well-formed noun phrase. Similarly, concrete nouns that refer to unlikely items in context (e.g. 'leg' or strawberry) will also seem odd. All the odd possible choices suggested in this paragraph would be semantically deviant. As a result, we appear to have innovative metaphors here. Indeed, semantic deviation is the basis for the majority of metaphors.

Stevens actually wrote:

The palm at the end of the mind
Beyond the last thought . . .

His choices are also semantically deviant (and so metaphorical and foregrounded), and these semantic deviations, when examined carefully, can be seen as a key to our understanding of the whole poem. Wallace's deviant choices refer to things in the same semantic area, that of human thought.

The mind is apparently being (mis)represented in the noun phrase 'the end of the mind' as a standard physical object with definite boundaries. Given that in many contexts 'mind' and 'brain' can substitute for one another, most readers will probably think of the physical object referred to as being fairly small (no bigger than a head) But this small mind has a rather large object, a tree, at the end of it, and indeed a variety of tree, a palm, which is unusual outside the tropics. The small, 'bog standard' mind thus seems, in a rather contradictory way, to be capable of big and unusual thoughts.

In the last noun phrase in the quotation, 'the last thought' (which, like 'the end of the mind' is part of a prepositional phrase postmodifying 'palm'), the assumption appears to be that the number of thoughts a mind can have is bounded, or finite. But the preposition 'beyond' introducing 'the last thought' clashes with the assumption of finiteness that the second noun phrase appears to suggest. This sets up another contradiction. A finite object can have infinite numbers of thoughts ('think of the biggest possible number and add one, and then repeat the operation' is a good demonstration of the non-finite nature of the number line).

Wallace Stevens poem thus appears, in the first two lines at least, to be about 'mere' minds having decidedly 'non-mere' thoughts. And he goes on in the poem to develop this into a characterisation of how human emotions are engendered. They are not generated through reason, which he sees as limited, but by things which are outside, or beyond, reason.

Notice how, by exploring the semantic deviations in these two lines carefully we have not just explained how the lines are foregrounded. We have also, by following the analysis through and linking the foregrounded parts together, come quite a long way in providing an interpretation of the lines. This linking together of foregrounded parts of a poem to engender interpretations is often called cohesion of foregrounding.

Although emotions are clearly not generated by reason (and this poem encapsulates that fact in an interesting and striking way) it does appear that Stevens, like many poets, characterises reason in a rather impoverished manner. After all, there are many reason-based accounts of the infinite in Mathematics, Physics and even Linguistics.

chuckle stop!

If you wish you can read the whole poem now.


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