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 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'
(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 -
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
She hears the Poor Frame Crack-

And knows - He'll - come - no More -

It came all so still
The little Thing-
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.

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
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

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
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.

'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?

Rhetoric is an ancient discipline that describes the technique of eloquent, persuasive speech. One of its most important aspects is a list of figures or tropes, ways in which language may be varied to good effect. Some of these are still very famous (e.g. metaphor, simile); others (e.g. bomphiologia, which means bragging exaggeration) are not. These terms can enable us to be precise about verbal effects.
Title: Like Emily Dickinson's poems, few of Christabel LaMotte's are actually given titles. Instead the first line of the poem is used. The lack of a definite title adds to the poem's enigmatic or riddling quality, removing the element of apparent intention that usually accompanies the choice of a title.
Repetition: Both CLM and ED make poetic use of repetition to emphasise the inescapable and overwhelming power of pain. In the ED poem the second instance of repetition within a line is also a structural repeat, with the verb and the dashes occurring in the same positions. This is a rhetorical figure usually termed isocolon.
Paranomasia or (as we would call it) pun: Here 'bore' functions in two ways: as the past tense of the verb 'to bear' and the verb meaning 'to drill' or 'to eat away at' something, suggesting the irascible nature of pain. The second meaning arises when considering the nearby image of the rock, usually a symbol of impregnability. ED also makes use of puns to express pain. The word 'Period', which (in American-English) means a final clause completed by a full stop, also refers to a quantity of time. The pun on 'Period' is therefore ironic, as the time period of pain is 'Infinite' and will not stop when a sentence stops.
Dash: Both ED and CLM make poetic use of this type of punctuation in their poems. In CLM the dash breaks up the flow of speech to convey the speech of a suffering persona, for whom forming complete sentences proves too difficult. C.f. 'Pain- has an Element of Blank' In ED the dash also creates a dramatic pause, causing the reader to dwell on each word as a unit or image in itself. Here the reader is led to focus on a verb of repetitive movement, contributing to the effect of the repetition which presents the incessant experience of pain.
Enigma: Both poems are enigmatic or riddling. The focus is on the reader to create a whole narrative from the fragments of speech broken up by and joined by the dashes.
Asyndeton: The occurrence of words or parts of speech not joined by conjunctions (e.g. and, but), technically known as asyndeton, produces a sense of a confused speaker, while contributing to the sense of the poem as an enigma.
Allusion: Two forms of allusion are present here, one local and one general. Though CLM is Byatt's Victorian poet, Byatt may be alluding to a short poem by W.B. Yeats called 'Spilt Milk' ('We that have done and thought, / That have thought and done, / Must ramble, and thin out / Like milk spilt on a stone'). However, a more general form of intertextuality may be at work, as the proverbial phrase 'There's no use crying over spilt milk' hovers at the back of the reader's mind. The supposed death of a child which leaves the lactating mother with milk in her breasts, but no child to feed, is certainly worth crying over. In this instance the allusion works against its original proverbial context, creating tragic irony.
Rhyme scheme: Though LaMotte's poem is trimetric - that is, in trimeter, or divided into three 'feet' or metrical units, each consisting of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable - rather than borrowing Dickinson's tetrameter (a metre consisting of four feet in a line), both poems use a similar rhyme scheme based on an abcb pattern. The scheme is less ballad-like and sing-song than the standard abab rhyme scheme, yet is still able to exploit all the poetic effects which accompany rhyme. See the last note, below.
Paradox: Both poets make use of paradox in an effort to convey the illogical or inexplicable experience of pain.
Capitalisation: Both CLM and ED capitalise words in addition to proper nouns and the beginning of sentences. This emphasises the word in question, prompting the reader to stress the word in reading. Occasionally this also creates proper nouns or concepts of things, so that in the CLM poem a 'Lapse' is imagined as a unique and self-contained movement, as the drop of milk falls to the floor.
Anaphora: repeating the same word at the beginning of the line for several consecutive lines. Both poets do this for poetic and emphatic effect.
Anticipatory rhyme: The rhyme-scheme abcb creates anticipatory rhymes, opening up a number of possible rhymes to the reader's ear at the first b line. These are then completed by the answering b rhyme in the last line of the stanza. This technique, used by both poets, yokes words and concepts together across the stanza.

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