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Of Echo and Shadow: Reading John Hollander
by Joseph Campana

John Hollander, The Substance of Shadow: A Darkening Trope in Poetic History. Ed. Kenneth Gross. University of Chicago Press, 2016.xxvi + 170 pp. ISBN: 978-02263527-9. $28.98 cloth.


In 1999, John Hollander delivered the Clark Lectures at the University of Cambridge on shadows and their relationship to English literature. After some gestures towards revision, it seems Hollander turned to other concerns. In the wake of his death, Kenneth Gross carefully edited the lectures for the University of Chicago Press, incorporating some revisions Hollander had indicated and including other notes and additional passages in an appendix in the back. I say ‘carefully’ to indicate precision, certainly, but more so to indicate the attention that affection affords and which Gross exemplifies in his shepherding of this posthumous work. Nowhere is this more evident than in the stellar introduction, which well-nigh rivals Hollander’s own prose for its elegance and insight. ‘Shadow here,’ he tells us, is ‘an occasion of continuous wonder and opening to the gifts of time’ (x). Gross’s enumeration of those gifts feels particularly useful:

Shadow indeed reveals itself here as a kind of light; it clarifies things as much as it darkens them, even as it becomes a name for doubt, for the unnameable, for the life of lost or ruined things, or the deathliness of the literal. Shadow offers a name for the substance of poetry itself. (x)

For Gross, and perhaps for anyone who has followed Hollander’s career so avidly, this late volume:

forms a diptych with The Figure of Echo: A Mode of Allusion in Milton and After, one of Hollander’s crucial books, a study of the intricate ways in which poems hear, remember, and transform earlier poems, how they excavate buried words and make new homes for them, even as they bear the burden of prior poems’ ‘darkening,’ their decaying into noise or silence. (xiv)

Echolocation seems an apt figure for how one might read the work of Hollander, as one sweeps and swerves in dark light and half-shadow through a rich sensory world. Shadows and echoes share a tenuous relationship to matter that solicits our attention. The shadow is nothing in itself and yet present where there is matter and light. The echo is invisible yet palpable, derivative yet real, most often fading to cessation and therefore constantly receding from reach. Although also quite distinct, it’s hard to keep echoes and shadows separate. Of the former, Hollander writes in The Figure of Echo:

The echoing discussed will not be literal; the terms echo, reverberation, and resonance will be used figuratively and often synonymously, without regard to their technical meanings. And yet the acoustic phenomena of echoes—caves and mountains and halls of origin delays in return, scattering and proliferation and so forth—will be implicitly and explicitly invoked, as will certain conceptual problems arising from them.[1]

Hollander may seem to disavow the literal properties of echoes, but this articulation of his approach appears after several pages of thoughtful reflection on the acoustic properties of echoes. This is also true of his treatment of shadows as he shifts easily from sentences that might begin ‘optically speaking’ to assertions that parlay physical observation into resonant assertions. ‘Shadows are related to our eternal condition,’ he says, ‘to our continuous, rather than to our more substantial mass’ (3). I would like to call this sententious, in the spirit of early modern sententiae, if that term hadn’t acquired such an aura of pomposity. Instead, I consider my shadow, and the idea that my mass on the planet might be either continuous or substantial. Perhaps both. How many shadows do I have as I type in my study, the sun having passed behind clouds, my work lit by two lamps, one on each side of me?

But the shadow that presses on this passage encourages me to consider a particular quality of analysis that I admire in Hollander as the acoustic properties of echoes and the optic qualities of shadows work in the service of an accomplished poet and literary critic who directs our attention to what poets make. The partial or elusive materiality of echoes and shadows suggest a property we struggle to describe when we experience extraordinary literature. Because what poets make is neither merely figural or merely metaphorical: part echo, part shadow, part thing, part event. How easy it is to get lost in the half-light of a phenomenon. Early on, Hollander suggests why that might be:

Except in darkness we are bound to our shadows, and our thoughts continue to beinvolved with them. These shadows grow and contract, and seem variously to partake ofthe surface on which they are cast, yet each is as personal to us as our names, we cannottake another shadow. We tend to feel that it is ourselves and not a specific source of light which is responsible for the presence of our shadows, even though moving that light source will animate a cast shadow as much as moving a body would. (1)

We can’t always tell where one thing ends (ourselves included) and a shadow begins. Causation and consequence and extent likewise dwell in uncertainty. And with these structuring ambiguities begins a capacious exploration of how writers have taught us how to do things with shadows. Exploration seems apt in as much as these chapters have the feel of lectures, exploratory in the sense of wide-ranging travail. The book provides neither a sharply defined theory or an exhaustive history of the shadow in literature, though it gestures towards both. Instead it stages suggestive encounters with shadows, exposes an archive of these encounters, which offer tantalizing prospects for poets and scholars working in the generous shade Hollander casts, and offers up thoughtful explications of what shadows portend.

The first lecture dwells on John Donne’s ‘Lecture upon the Shadow,’ which probes the strange agency of shadows as it also exposes the elusive prospect of the shadow’s opposite, the moment ‘to brave clearness all things are reduc’d.’ Hollander’s languorous slow reading of the poem tugs at the strings of language to find its indwelling shades—from shadow to substance, from cover to covert, and from umbrae to tenebrae to manes to imago. As he weaves from Donne to Campion to Wordsworth, back to Plato then forward to Spenser and Chapman and Dowland, Hollander exposes the way a network of shadows (and related terms) illuminate, even if darkly, the fundamental problem of perceiving and describing what is or is not real.

While the question of the real occupies the opening lecture, it is the persistent evocation of “the matter of death” that concerns the second lecture. ‘Since every person will die,’ Hollander insists, ‘every shadow can be seen poetically as either a figure of that person’s own death or as an emanative instance of death itself’ (33). From Vergil’s Eclogues to his Aeneid and far beyond, Hollander considers the potentially delusory nature of shadows, which might misdirect us with respect to the looming specter of mortality. Cognizance of that mortality comes to seem irrepressible. ‘The rhetorical infection by the umbra mortis of the otherwise sheltering, or at most emblematically transitory, shadow remained to haunt many other poetic shadows and shades’ (42). Dante and Wallace Stevens equally help examine how ‘the Horatian umbra, separated from its once completing but now decomposed body, is close to the manes, the shade or ghost of the dead’ (43), all of which builds towards a parsing of shade and shadow in Paradise Lost, from the darkness visible of Hell imagined by the blind poet to the ‘umbra futurorum’ Michael conveys to Adam.   

Whereas these early lectures are ‘primarily concerned with the presence of shadows’ as ‘representations,’ Hollander’s third lecture considers shadows as expressions, by which he means the ‘radiance or emanative power of shadows,’ which ‘leads us to central issues for romantic and later poetry’ (pp.69, 72). Hence the fantasy of the detachable shadow most notably as told by Aldebert von Chamisso and Hans Christian Andersen, both of whom flirt with the idea that our shadows might replace us or perhaps live fascinating and relatively unrelated lives. The rest of the chapter wanders, at times a bit aimlessly, its impact deriving not from ironclad argumentation or sweeping synthesis but from heightened attentiveness to the shadows of the Romantic poets. The final lecture similarly browses the canon, from Romantic to modern poetry to ‘examine in some detail three problematic shadows falling across the surface of poems by Poet, Tennyson, and Eliot’ (pp.101). These lead back to the idea of the shadow of death and ultimately to a patient reading of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land in which gather centuries of prior shades. It seems apt to think of Eliot as the great collector of shadows:

The substance of modern poetic shadows is in good part that of prior poetic shadow itself. As the poetic image of ‘shadow’ allusively thickened during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, it summed up and intermingled representations of things seen and unseen and even untenable, expressions of inner states and outer conditions—shadows as representations accompanying their objects in a common visible world, or shadows cast by invisible objects, invisible either because they are abstractions (like death) or something within a person which in any case no anatomy could bring to light. (129)


Things happen in shadows. Sometimes scandalous things, which is perhaps why Kenneth Gross’s introduction to John Hollander’s The Substance of Shadow begins with an epigraph from Hart Crane: ‘Under thy shadow by the piers I waited / Only in darkness is thy shadow clear.’ Surely it cannot be only my prurience that encourages me to consider what precisely it was Crane might have been doing at the piers, cruising in the shadow of the iconic, and to Crane totemic, Brooklyn Bridge. Perhaps that, too, is why ‘in darkness’ a shadow might be ‘clear.’ The thought of that sends me to another poem, this one by Anne Winters, from her devastating sequence ‘A Sonnet-Map of Manhattan’ from the justly celebrated collection The Displaced of Capital.[2] One of the most affecting, ‘Greenwich Street: Sad Father with a Hat,’ recollects a world of childhood memory whose layers of obscuration slowly become clarified by time. The ‘smoked apartment shot with light-shaft light’ is where the father reads to his daughter:

As you read aloud, I could hear the tension flattening


your voice. Then lights-out, then the studied
half hour; and you’d slip through our tiny courtyard
into the late forties Village noir; its post-war notes
of lit-up streetlamps, of hatbrimmed shadows

Despite the overtones of noir, the father is neither gangster nor spy. He heads

westward towards the wharf-bars
past alleys where hatted shadows, featureless as felt,

embraced. And at breakfast, your arrowy cheekbones
blue-bruised, bruised by the men in blue
beneath whose knees, all night, you’d knelt.

Shadows, by the force of their obfuscating powers, create a world in which desires might be realized in half-darkness far from the prying eyes and provincial moralities of the workaday sun. Before John Donne came to resent the sun, that busy old fool, Spenser dwelt in complexly refracted shadows of a dark conceit that shadowed forth Queen Elizabeth and so many other figures. It is in just this kind of shade that Redcrosse rests with his newly and poorly chosen companion Duessa:

Long time they thus together traueiled,
Till weary of their way, they came at last,
Where grew two goodly trees, that faire did spred
Their armes abroad, with gray mosse ouercast,
And their greene leaues trembling with euery blast,
Made a calme shadow far in compasse round:
The fearefull Shepheard often there aghast
Vnder them neuer sat, ne wont there sound
His mery oaten pipe, but shund th’vnlucky ground.[3]


In a poem in which there is never just splendor in the grass, it is hard not to anticipate all of what will go wrong amongst and under the trees. Soon Fradubio—once a man, now a tree—will cry out in pain, his warning about Duessa destined to go unheeded. But before that, the trees shelter makes a little bower and a little shade. What is a bower—that most dangerous instance of the architectures of pleasure in The Faerie Queene—if not a maker of shadows? Even the otium-adoring shepherds shun a place haunted by the ill-omened shadows of the fooled Fradubio and the hapless Fralissa, and the uncanny echoes of Fradubio’s voice. Echo and shadow, what we might call the bookends of Hollander’s career, here together. Even the most innocent might fall into shadow. We may not reserve that moniker for Fradubio, but Fralissa is one of great and easily forgettable victims of circumstance in The Faerie Queene. Of course, anyone call fall into shadow. Even Una, the light of truth herself, sinks into weary shade after much travail, ‘on the grasse her daintie limbes did lay / In secret shadow, farre from all mens sight’ (I.iii.4). Sleep and death, secrets and sleep, sleep and shadow—how can we tell the difference?  


Understandably we so often conceive of shadows as mere extensions of objects, for it is the capacity of an object to obstruct light that creates shadows as small as a pencil or as large as an eclipse. And yet in shadows arise a series of transactions and exchanges. A moment from Hart Crane cited by Gross as evoked by Hollander sent me to the Brooklyn Bridge and from there Manhattan, as imagined by Crane and Winters, and from there to Faerie land (this is the Spenser Review, after all) and a healthy scattering of shadows dot the works of Spenser. With the help of WordHoard, I found 62 instances of just the noun ‘shadow’ in those works, 36 in the 1596 Faerie Queene. That doesn’t count four uses of ‘shadow’ as a verb, 86 uses of ‘shade’ as a noun and 4 as a verb, and 24 uses of ‘shady’ as an adjective. Perhaps it is no surprise that nouns dominate in the broken mirror of post-Reformation England into which Spenser and his peers saw darkly the outlines of so many shadows past and those to come.

A number of those shadows are the (at least seemingly) natural consequence of vegetation. More worrying are ‘vaine’ shadows, as if the less substantial a shadow is the more threatening it might be. Back in the pastoral provinces of the Legend of Courtesy, Calidore says:

Now surely syre, I find,
That all this worlds gay showes, which we admire,
Be but vaine shadowes to this safe retyre
Of life, which here in lowlinesse ye lead,
Fearelesse of foes, or fortunes wrackfull yre,
Which tosseth states, and vnder foot doth tread
The mightie ones, affrayd of euery chaunges dread. (VI.ix.27)

Shadows fool us, making us think there is substance where there isn’t. And we’d do well to be wary of Calidore here, who speaks having being ‘entraunced’ by the shepherd’s account of pastoral life. Calidore then speaks of shadows ‘to worke his mind,/And to insinuate his harts desire.’ Shadows may also encourage aspiration, as when Britomart ‘lou’st the shadow of a warlike knight; / No shadow, but a bodie hath in powre’ (III.ii.45). A vision may become real. Britomart will find the body of the warlike both in herself as she batters her way through Faerie land and in the body of the often-disappointing Artegall. Shadows pleasure us, comfort and protect us, and provoke aspirations and delusions difficult to distinguish from one another. Some shadows are darker, ‘griesly’ in fact, and suggest the all-too tenuous borders between the living and the dead. Guyon moves in Mammon’s realms, ‘through griesly shadowes by a beaten path.’ Arthur’s epic action is interrupted as ‘All suddenly dim woxe the dampish ayre,/And griesly shadowes couered heauen bright,’ (III.iv.52). ‘Griesley’: how tactile the word feels, as if shadows might rub off on you and as if these purportedly substanceless distractions might change the objects from which they derive and over which they extend. Would it be unreasonable to say that The Faerie Queene, and the literature of Renaissance England more broadly, is one great echo chamber, one great shadow box of provocations?


We hear echoes everywhere and shadows surround and suffuse us.  You might drive hours to get the best vantage on an eclipse. The shades of gray complexion afflicting friend in ill health might seem to hover uncertainly as harbingers. We seek shadows that are always seeking us it seems. What I find most invigorating in Hollander’s account is a reminder that shadows offer us exquisite figures for the patient making that is poetry. In a note collected in the appendix, Hollander recollects two portraits by Georges de la Tour of the penitent Magdalene, holding a candle as shadows paint the walls around her. Over the last few years I’ve been on my own private grail quest to see as many of the paintings of Caravaggio as possible. So tenebrism and chiaroscuro and the many forms of darkness visible in those works have been on my mind, as have the works of his followers, like Georges de la Tour. More particularly, I’m thinking of the vogue of candlelight paintings. You might see a boy singing, a woman cleaning, or martyr departing, or a family relaxing all around the intimacy of a candle that makes more shadow than light. And I’m reminded too of Francis Quarles Hieroglyphikes, an emblem book that figures the human as a candle. He was not the first to think life a ‘brief candle’ so it is no wonder we gather about the candles that are poets whose cast shadows are as illuminating as their bright gazes.


Joseph Campana

Rice University


[1] John Hollander, The Figure of Echo: A Mode of Allusion in Milton and After, California UP, 1981. P. 23.

[2] Anne Winters, The Displaced of Capital, Chicago UP, 2004. P. 44.

[3] All references (to book, canto, stanza) are to Edmund Spenser, The Faerie Queene, ed. A.C. Hamilton. Longman, 1977.


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Cite as:

Joseph Campana, "Of Echo and Shadow: Reading John Hollander," Spenser Review 48.1.15 (Winter 2018). Accessed May 22nd, 2018.
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