Byatt: Intertextuality and Possession, A case study
Here undergraduate Laura Kilbride undertakes a critical experiment. The goal is to map out in visual form the intertextual relationships of a poem. The one chosen is 'Our Lady- bearing- Pain' (p. 381), written by A.S. Byatt in the fictional persona of Christabel LaMotte.
There are two main aspects of this experiment as it is presented here. First, the Byatt poem (on the left, below) has been marked with links to show its intersections with two poems by Emily Dickinson (on the right); when you run your mouse over a highlighted section of the left-hand poem, the relevant part(s) of the other will be highlighted. Secondly, the Byatt poem is annotated to keep track of what these connections are and what they mean to the poem. These notes often use rhetorical terminology to describe the poetic effects. What we have here are two ways of annotating a text: one more traditional, the other (the dynamic highlighting) more innovative.
|'Our Lady- bearing- Pain' «note»
(Christabel LaMotte, i.e. A.S. Byatt, referred to in notes as CLM)
Our Lady- bearing- Pain
It came all so still
Others in a heavy Vase
Wet on soft dust its sound.
|'I felt a Funeral, in my Brain'
(Emily Dickinson, referred to in notes as ED)
I felt a Funeral, in my Brain,
And I dropped down, and down-
And hit a World, at every plunge,
And Finished knowing- then-
Pain - has an Element of Blank
Pain - has an Element of Blank -
You might follow up this essay's turn towards rhetorical terminology by looking at one of the online resources devoted to it. There is a forest of rhetoric, for example, at http://humanities.byu.edu/rhetoric/Silva.htm. It is sometimes difficult to separate out the useful material from the volume of terms and definitions, but a precise critical vocabulary is worth some effort!
What do you think of this method? Do you think this helps uncover how a poem was written? Or does it tell us something else, e.g. how the poem seems to expect us to read it? Or might such colour-coding end up sacrificing coherence and poetic effect?
Whether or not you like the method, it's hard to deny that Byatt has carefully woven her characters and their works out of authors and their works. What difference does this awareness make to your reading of Possession?
In the notes you'll find some technical rhetorical terms describing poetic effects. What do you think such technical language adds to reading poetry?