Rhetoric in The Illiterate
Gregerson’s article “Rhetorical Contract in the Lyric Poem” expounds upon the purpose of lyric poetry. She posits that there is a relationship between the reader and the speaker that extends beyond utilitarian or surface purposes, claiming that a contract forms between these two parties. Throughout the article, Gregerson applies the notions of subtext and of hidden meaning to various lyric poems. She states that a lyric poem tells a story, but in a roundabout way. Instead of perfectly outlining a plot, the reader must delve into the space between the words and decipher the true meaning of the poem.
In particular, Gregerson’s thoughts on Meredith’s The Illiterate add complexity to its surface read. She claims that Meredith constructs a conception of the self in a way that uses the actual words of the poem rather than just the base meanings they possess. Choices in syntax, grammar, and content provide cues to the deeper personality of the poem. The reader must closely examine Meredith’s syntax and question his every choice of word and punctuation. The reader attempts to get inside Meredith’s thought process, forming a uniquely close bond between the poet and the reader. As small details gain significance, the meaning of the poem is transformed.
An important thing to note is that this poem is a conceit. The speaker is not an illiterate man, but rather uses this simile to portray his frame of mind. His inability to comprehend does not pertain to words but rather to love. He uses the image of the illiterate man to convey his inexperience with this situation regarding the “goodness” of the unnamed “you”. In the poem, Meredith states that it is not because there is an unfamiliar handwriting on the letter that the man cannot read it. Rather, the experience of getting a letter itself is unfamiliar (“And you might think this was because the hand/Was unfamiliar but, truth is, the man/Has never had a letter from anyone”). This parallels the experience of the speaker in the poem. He is not at a loss because he is starting a relationship with a new person but has in fact never been in a relationship at all, or at least not a relationship of this kind.
This brings up the question of just what sort of relationship this is. It describes a state of virginity, of embarking on a new experience without having an idea what to expect. Gregerson steers the reader away from the idea of hetero-normative and youthful virginity to the concept of virginity in homoerotic encounters. She claims that, “the dark girl may also be a delicate allusion to Shakespeare’s dark lady, and thus a coded key to the primary passion—the homoerotic passion—in which the poem is grounded” (Gregerson 175). These sonnets contain explicit professions of homoerotic love. Seen through this lens, the speaker hopes that the man who has scorned his homoerotic desire will change his mind and become the object of his affection. This is a point that Gregerson fails to prove absolutely, but it nevertheless calls attention to an alternative interpretation of the poem: that of homoerotic desire.
As a homosexual man himself, Meredith may have written the speaker into a position of unrequited homosexual love. The reader has exerted energy into discovering where the poet is coming from, and at this point the poet turns to the reader and conveys a message. The self within the poem becomes a vehicle for the message, an instrument of the poet in relating some truth or emotion to the audience. One of Gregerson’s characteristics of lyric poetry is the symbiosis between love and some obstacle to that love. She claims that sonnets are necessarily dichotomous in their content, because they are written about this paradoxical existence. She states, “Impediment was as central to the sonnet as was love. Impediment produced the lyric voice. Without impediment, the lover would have no need to resort to poetry” (Gregerson 167). If the man had been literate or the love had been reciprocated, there would be no need for the poem. These obstacles provide a reason for writing the poem in the first place and create tension within its content.
Yet the meaning of the poem extends beyond the practicality of the physical poem or the meaning of its words. One of the most intriguing aspects of this poem is the rhyme scheme. It is incredibly simple, either with words in a direct, monosyllabic rhyme with the same word (means, means), or a polysyllabic rhyme with the same end (anyone, someone). As Gregerson points out, this almost juvenile way of rhyming seems to suggest a lack of creativity on the part of the poet. (Gregerson 176) Since Meredith, as a winner of major poetry awards including the Pulitzer, is a poet hardly lacking in talent or vocabulary, the reader concludes that Meredith intentionally simplifies his rhyme scheme to portray the poor command of language that the illiterate man exhibits. These words are the sort of things that children first encounter when learning to read, yet even these are unintelligible to the illiterate man. He has no baseline to go off of, and not way to find out the contents of the letter other than to ask someone.
Another reason for Meredith’s method is that repetition in rhyme adds to the other repetitious aspects of the poem. The illiterate man turns the letter over in his hands, neither opening it nor putting it down and putting it from his mind. The whole poem has a static feel to it. We do not witness the man receiving the letter, the initial reaction to it, or know how he decides to deal with it. Does he consult someone else or try to stumble through it by himself? The reader is not privy to this information and instead only sees the circuitous thoughts of the man, of all the possibilities that could be contained within the letter. In this way, the predictable rhyme of this work enhances this idea of knowing what comes next. The illiterate man runs the same possibilities through his mind on a loop, and in the same way the rhyme is very predictable and lacks any new development.
The only way for the illiterate man to find out what the letter contains is to ask someone. This may be embarrassing to admit that he cannot read, and to also invite someone else into his private life. He is vulnerable in his ignorance of what the letter contains. If it is indeed a letter containing bad news from his parents, or a profession of love from the dark girl, he will undoubtedly have a very strong and personal reaction. To invite someone else to share this with him by reading the letter (and thereby knowing the information before even he does) is an uncomfortable feeling. Similarly, asking relationship advice puts the speaker in this vulnerable position as well. Being in a foreign situation, the only way to proceed is to ask someone who does have experience for advice. Once again, this is a highly personal sphere into which it is difficult to invite someone else.
The poem reads slowly, conveying the feeling of anticipation to the reader. Meredith’s frequent use of commas in the poem delays the already slow read of the poem. The commas add a feeling of disjointedness. The reader must pause frequently and approach the poem haltingly. This parallels the speaker’s story. Both the illiterate man and the speaker himself embody a hesitance that is the hallmark of their inexperience. The poem is not about a reckless shedding of inhibitions and plunging oneself into the unknown. Instead, it has a conservative and preservative nature about it. The illiterate man is not yet ready to narrow-down the myriad possibilities that the letter could contain and find out for certain. He “turns a letter over in his hand” and wonders what is inside. Whether the news is good or bad, he “preserves possibility” (Gregerson 176). The poem has a slightly pessimistic feel, because if the letter contains good news he would surely want to know its contents immediately. Yet if it is bad news, he will immediately wish he was ignorant once again. Out of fear, he chooses to remain in the dark. He cannot bear to shed the illusion that perhaps he has gained a large inheritance or that the “dark girl” may have changed her mind and decided to be his lover. The possibility that his parents may have died and this could be a letter alerting him of that fact makes him reticent to give up his current state of oblivion.
In the same way, the speaker cannot yet truly embark on the relationship with the “you” in the poem. The new relationship could hold wonderful, amorous joy. He may have found his partner with whom he will spend the rest of his life. Yet he may also invest himself in this relationship only to have his heart broken. Again, from a pessimistic viewpoint, being in the initial phase of attraction is preferable to developing and then losing a deep connection with someone, even if this choice means also spurning the potential of a great relationship. To the speaker, the seduction of possibility is more glamorous than the real-life drama of romance.
Despite the overall lack of progress in the poem, there is certainly a shift between the first and second stanzas. In the first, there is a sense of shame and embarrassment at not being able to tell what the letter says. Yet in the second stanza, it is this very ignorance that allows the man to feel the bitter-sweetness of possibility. He simultaneously wants to know what the letter says but also is afraid of what it might hold. On the speaker’s part, the first contains an embarrassment about his inexperience and a feeling of being overwhelmed. In the second stanza, this very innocence allows him to retain the illusion of what the encounter will be like. The final two lines of the poem ask an impossible question: “What would you call his feeling for the words/That keep him rich and orphaned and beloved?” Can the feeling be called hopeful? The degree of anxiety present in anticipation of bad news complicates that notion. This volatile and impermanent state is difficult to put into words, perhaps why Meredith chooses to use the conceit of the illiterate man in the first place, rather than merely attempting to describe the speaker’s condition outright.
In these last two lines, Meredith highlights the age-old question of whether or not ignorance is bliss. Is it better to be in a state of hoping, anticipating something? The answer depends on the outcome. If the end-state is happiness, then certainly it would be better to reach that point. Yet if there is nothing but disappointment as a final result, the state of the unknown may be preferable.
This brings us back to Gregerson’s article. What exactly is the rhetoric of The Illiterate accomplishing? Gregerson posits that lyric poetry seeks to persuade the reader of something, but in this case there is no outright ambition on behalf of the speaker. Instead, his purpose is to make us consider this question of hope versus knowledge. Meredith suggests that one cannot have both. The poem itself seems to state that the state of naïveté, of anticipation, is preferable to knowledge. After the illusion has been shattered and the reality of decisions and situations sets in, there is no escape. Meredith keeps the reader from knowing what that letter actually says and from knowing how the speaker ultimately embarks on the relationship with his lover. Is it possible for them to stay in this ambiguous state forever? By failing to provide an answer, and by ending the poem with a question, Meredith leaves the reader wondering what exactly the purpose of the poem is. In a very meta way, this may be exactly what Meredith intends: to leave us questioning and uncertain. Like the illiterate man, the words of the poem simultaneously lose and gain significance for us. We question the point of the entire poem, but the fact that we are questioning at all is in fact the goal. Through this realization (or lack-thereof), The Illiterate comes to be viewed as not just a sonnet but also as an Ars Poetica poem, pointing out that the purpose of this poem, and of poems in general, may not be to convey experience but thought.