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
She bore what the Cross bears
She bears and bears again - «note»
As the stone- bears- its scars
The Hammer broke her out
Of rough Rock's ancient- Sleep-
And chiselled her about
With stars that weep- that weep-
The Pain inscribed in Rock-
The Pain he bears- she Bore «note»
She hears the Poor Frame Crack-

And knows - He'll - come - no More - «note»

It came all so still
The little Thing-«note»
And would not stay -
Our Questioning -
A heavy Breath
One two and three -
And then the lapsed
Eternity -
A Lapis Flesh
The Crimson- Gone -
It came as still
As any Stone -
My subject is Spilt Milk. «note»

A white Disfigurement
A quiet creeping Sleek
Of squandered Nourishment

Others in a heavy Vase
Raise darkly scented Wine -
This warm and squirted White
In solid Pot - was mine -
And now a paradox
A bleaching blot, a stain
Of pure and innocent white «note»
It goes to Earth again -
Which smelled of summer Hay
Of crunching Cow - Divine -
Of warm flanks and of love
More quiet, more still- than mine-
It runs on table top
It drips onto the Ground

We hear its liquid Lapse «note»

Wet on soft dust its sound.
We run with milk and blood
What we would give we spill
The hungry mouths are raised
We spill we fail to fill
This cannot be restored «note»
This flow cannot redeem
This white's not wiped away
Though blanched we seem
Howe'er I wipe and wipe
Howe'er I frantic- scour
The ghost of my spilled milk
Makes my Air sour. «note»

'I felt a Funeral, in my Brain'
(Emily Dickinson, referred to in notes as ED)

I felt a Funeral, in my Brain,
And Mourners to and fro
Kept treading - treading - till it seemed
That Sense was breaking through-
And when they all were seated,
A Service, like a Drum-
Kept beating- beating - till I thought
My Mind was going numb --
And then I heard them lift a Box
And creak across my Soul
With those same Boots of Lead, again,
Then Space- began to toll,

As all the Heavens were a Bell,
And Being, but an Ear,
And I, and Silence, some strange Race
Wrecked, solitary, here-

And then a Plank in Reason, broke,

And I dropped down, and down-

And hit a World, at every plunge,

And Finished knowing- then-

Pain - has an Element of Blank
(Emily Dickinson)

Pain - has an Element of Blank -
It cannot recollect
When it begun- or if there were
A time when it was not-
It has no Future- but itself-
Its Infinite contain
Its past- enlightened to perceive
New Periods - of Pain.

Further Reading

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 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!

Further Thinking

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?

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