Byatt: The Place of Poetry in Possession
The poetry in Possession is often structured like a series of Russian dolls nested inside one another. Poems introduce and end chapters, crop up in conversation or in the minds and letters of the characters. Here Laura Kilbride lists the places where poetry appears, and suggests some ways the embedded poems may be important.
This page contains a simple summary list, broken down chapter by chapter, of the poems that appear in Possession. This list is meant to work as a resource that leads to lots of particular reading suggestions. It's also the case that knowing more about the poems behind the novel will add to your understanding of the novel itself. Here are some questions to consider about the place of poetry in Possession:
- How does the location of each poem within the plot of the novel affect how it is meant to be received?
- How does the location of those chapters which are entirely poetry affect how we read the novel?
- Is it significant that certain chapters contain no poetry?
- What difference does it make when a poem appears as an , in comparison with when it is 'embedded' in the chapter? For example, is it easier to read the embedded texts because they are given a frame or a local context?
- How do the epigraphs guide our reading of each chapter?
- How do the characters in the novel read or use poems, and should we read in a similar way?
Dedication to Isobel Armstrong (Literary critic specializing in nineteenth century poetry and women's writing, Professor at Birkbeck College, London).
Epigraphs: Nathaniel Hawthorne Preface to The House of the Seven Gables; Robert Browning's Mr Sludge, the Medium'.
Epigraph: Randolph Henry Ash (RHA), excerpt from The Garden of Proserpina.
Embedded: 'She Tells Her Love While Half Asleep' by Robert Graves.
Epigraph: RHA short excerpt from Ragnarök III.
Embedded (within Roland's consciousness) 'Finding out Ancient Battles from the Shards'.
Epigraph: Christabel LaMotte (CLM) 'The Thicket is Thorny'.
Embedded poems: 'I Like Things Clean About Me' (CLM, embedded in Veronica Hamilton's Criticism, where it is compared to George Herbert); 'From So Botched and Cramped a Creature' (CLM, insect poems); 'The One about the Cumaean Sibyl' (CLM, in Maud and Roland's conversation); Fergus Wolf quotes W.B. Yeats, 'For Anne Gregory', with reference to Maud's hair.
Epigraph: RHA, from The Incarcerated Sorceress.
Embedded: Excerpt from Tennyson's 'The Lady of Shalott' ('On either side the river lie...', embedded in Roland's consciousness); CLM's epitaph on the tombstone; CLM 'Dolly keeps a secret / Safer than a friend'.
Epigraph: RHA, The Great Collector.
Epigraph: CLM 'Men may be martyred / Any where'.
Embedded: in Beatrice Nest's narrative, RHA, 'We two remake our world by naming it'; CLM's Melusine in Ellen Ash's Journal.
Epigraph: CLM, 'All Day snow fell'.
Embedded: CLM, fragment from The Drowned City (in Roland's reading, prefaced by a note by Leonora Stern); CLM (?), 'And in the pool two fishes play" (in Maud's thoughts by the fishpond).
Embedded: CLM, poems / riddles in the fairytale 'The Threshold'
Embedded: CLM, 'Metamorphosis' and 'Psyche' (both enclosed within correspondence to RHA); fragments of poetry within the letters, the language of which might often be deemed 'poetic'; John Donne 'A : Forbidding Mourning', to which CLM responds in 'The grassy knoll / Shivers in his embrace'.
Whole Chapter: RHA, Swammerdam.
Epigraph: CLM, 'What is a House? / So strong - so square...'
Embedded: RHA's note, with the brooch to Ellen, transcribed in Ellen Ash's Journal ('I love a paradox and so I send'); RHA / CLM compared in the conversation of Roland and Maud.
Epigraph: RHA, Ragnarök II
Epigraph: RHA, from Ask to Embla, XIII.
Embedded: RHA quoting Wordsworth in a letter to Ellen, 'Mark! How all things swerve...' from 'Monastery of Old Bangor' in the Ecclesiastical Sonnets; Maud quotes the beginning of CLM, Melusina.
Epigraph RHA, 'And is love then more/ Than the kick galvanic'
Embedded: RHA quotes Troilus and Cressida by William Shakespeare before the consummation.
Whole Chapter: CLM, The Fairy Melusine, Proem.
Embedded: John Donne's 'Love's Alchemy' as the source for RHA's Mummy Possest (in Blackadder's footnote).
Epigraph: CLM, 'Gloves lie together/ Limp and Calm'.
Epigraph: CLM, From The City of Is.
Embedded (or, more accurately, Epilogues): CLM, 'Our Lady- bearing- Pain' (sent by Ariane Le Minier to Maud Bailey).
Epigraph: CLM, 'I press my palms on / Window's White Cross'.
Embedded: CLM quotes 'Faith' by George Herbert in a letter to Madame Cropper.
Whole Chapter: RHA, Mummy Possest.
Embedded: Ash's Epitaph (Cardinal Bembo's epitaph for Raphael), Ash reciting from John Donne's 'A Valediction Forbidding Mourning' on his deathbed ('Dull sublunary lovers' love).
Epigraph: RHA, from The Garden of Proserpina.
Epigraph: RHA, 'In Certain Moods We Eat Our Lives Away'.
Embedded: CLM, in her last letter to Ash, quotes Samson Agonistes by John Milton.
Embedded: RHA asks his daughter if she knows the verse from The Garden of Proserpina.
The questions at the top of this article invite you to consider the particulars of these extracts and allusions in this novel. You could also look at our 'Intertextuality' resource, and the case study there, to think about the ways in which one text takes from, or opens itself to, another. There you'll also find a guide to some other novels that interweave writings of various kinds into their fictions.