Exam Reading – Absence, Presence, Representation

These three themes have arisen again and again in the sonnet sequences I’ve been reading over the first two weeks of my exam schedule. The absence/presence dichotomy is fairly straightforward at its most basic level – the beloved is absent and the lover yearns for her/his presence, or the beloved is present and the lover worries about a time when she/he will again be absent. But many of the sonnet sequences I’ve been reading have various takes on this basic trope that problematize the role of presence and absence in the relation between lover/beloved. Most often, and what I’ve found most interesting, the absence of the beloved necessarily presupposes the presence of a representation – in the beloved’s absence the poet can still write about a mental or physical representation (a miniature portrait in many cases) of the beloved, a move that allows the representation to become the impetus behind the poetry, rather than the original beloved, and troubles any declaration that the poems are a direct mirror of the beloved him/herself.

First, some thoughts on Shakespeare’s play with these themes. In Sonnet 97, the absence from the young man is compared to “winter” (“freezings,” “dark days,” and “old December’s bareness”). The poet writes that the actual time apart for the lovers was summer and autumn, but the “abundant issue” of those seasons seemed “unfathered fruit” to the poet without the young man. Here, presence and absence are interwoven with references to bareness and abundance (perhaps, in one respect reminding us of the early young man sonnets in which the absence of any progeny from the young man is extremely distressing for the poet because the young man’s death will then be a permanent absence). But an important nuance here is that the seasons are still “abundant” in the young man’s absence, the abundances are just “unfathered” and the “hope of orphans” rather than properly parented issue. What is the significance of such a nuance and how does it affect the way the way the young man’s absence is figured here?

Sonnet 113 begins again with absence (“Since I left you”) but has more to say about representation and “seeing” in the young man’s absence. Here, the poet’s most true eye becomes his mind rather than his actual eye – “mine eye is in my mind” (1) and “my most true mind thus maketh mine eye untrue” (14). The mind’s eye, the poet writes, reshapes all forms into the young man’s form. Nothing, however, is said about what that form is. A representation or description of the young man does not enter the sonnet at all, rather the poet simply tells us that these transformations are occurring. Such omission works on several interesting levels. First, it keeps the actual representation of the young man (the reshaped forms that come out of every visual encounter the poet has in his absence) private. Second, it leaves the form up to the imagination of the reader and the reader can then ape the action of the poet, by imagining through the poem (one of those “shapes” the eye is “latching” onto) the features of the young man. And, finally, it makes the poet’s claim problematic by eliminating proof of the end result. Without knowing how these transformations end, how do we know that the process is truly taking place? The conflation of mind and eye also circles back to my earlier observation about the problematic relationship between representation and the poems as a direct mirror able to capture and immortalize a true version of the beloved. Because here in Sonnet 113, what is the true form? What is the true image of the beloved and how can anything be true if the mind is capable of transforming everything it sees into other things? Obviously not based in the kind of visual truth generally presented in these sonnets, what, then, is the version of “truth” presented here?

Donne also incorporates interest play with the tropes of absence and presence. The two poems I want to specifically think about, “A Valediction Forbidding Mourning” and “A Valediction of My Name in the Window,” both actually present a moment of leave-taking rather than absence. That already seems to raise an important question – what is the significance of this difference, where the poet contemplates the moment just before absence rather than the absence itself? Both poems do, however, include thoughts on what the absence might look like (in “Forbidding Mourning” the compass metaphor conveys the triangulation in absence that will occur and in “My Name” the poet hypothesizes about a new lover the woman will incorporate into her life in the poet’s absence), but the framing of both is still contained within the moment of leave-taking.

Both poems also include a reference to death – not actual, permanent death, but rather the uncertain moments of “dying.” This uncertain, threshold moment between life and death seems to parallel the threshold-like moment just before absence (absence is figured in some sonnet sequences (I’m blanking on whose at the moment) as a kind of temporary death) – the moments just before dying and the moments just before leaving. In “Forbidding Mourning” the poem opens with an image of friends gathered around the bedside of a dying man and the uncertainty that ensues in knowing whether or not the man is really dead. In “My Name,” the poem ends with the poet attributing his “idle talk” to that of a “dying man.” It seems important also, given Donne’s constant interest in the physical body and the very material, at times grotesque, role of the body in the lovers’ relations, to think about the resonance of death, or “little death,” as orgasm in these moments. With this reference in mind, both of these poems juggle ideas of leaving-taking (and, consequently, absence), orgasm, and dying. Again all of these elements suggest a middling place – all of these actions figure a cusp, a peak just before the actual release. Figuring these elements together, Donne seems to be saying something about the thresholds and apexes of experiences between lover and beloved in all their forms.

And, finally, I want to include Mary Wroth in this discussion briefly. In her sonnet sequence, Pamphilia to Amphilanthus, the female poet’s beloved (Amphilanthus) is never actually present. Scholars (in particular Ann Rosalind Jones or Wendy Wall – again, I’m blanking on the exact reference) have argued that this absence actually helps legitimate Wroth’s poetry. Because the male lover is never present, there is no inappropriate physical intimacy between the two lovers and the female poet’s purity is preserved throughout the sequence. Especially given that Amphilanthus is meant to be married to someone else, his absence seems helpful in maintaining the poet’s chastity.

But the absence here does much more, too. It keeps everything contained within the body and mind of the female poet/character rather than needing to account for the physical presence of the sonnet’s subject. This, however, should again give us pause – if the entire sequence is contained in the interior of the character (already once removed from the poet because she writes as Pamphilia, a fictional character from her Urania), is it a problem that the beloved is once again filtered through the mind of the writer? In other words, we have two layers of removal from the actual, original Amphilanthus – one given that the poem is written in the guise of a fictional character and the other that the version of Amphilanthus and the relationship described is always a “representation” from Pamphilia’s mind. Her mind, we must also remember, is presented as an extremely unstable entity. The sonnet sequence begins with a dream vision, opening the text in the uncertain space between sleep and wake. Her mind is also compared to a labyrinth through the sonnet sequence’s crown and often presented as confused and disoriented both spatially and temporally. Again, then, the absence of the beloved in the sonnet sequence marks the problematic necessity of a representation (in Wroth’s case, a purely immaterial one) and, consequently, a filtered version of the beloved.

Several more interesting questions emerge from these connections:

1. What is the significance of the difference between material and immaterial representations of the beloved? It seems as though the immaterial representation would in some way be more intimate because it is contained within the lover’s mind/heart/etc. But, the material representation does provide a way for the lover to hold and touch the representation in ways that allow for a more visceral intimacy in the absence of the original beloved. Which, then, can be considered more intimate or does each kind of representation ultimately present a different definition of intimacy within the framework of absence?

2. How is the gender difference significant here? In Donne’s poem’s the male poet writes to and about a woman, but in Wroth’s sonnet sequence we have a female poet writing to a man and in Shakespeare’s a man writing to a man. What difference do these gender trajectories make, if any, and how might representation become more or less problematic depending on these circumstances?

3. How does the presence of representation rather than original change the claim that poetry stems from or is a result of the beloved’s perfection or the lover/beloved relationship? Does the interruption of a representation change the intimacy involved in the lover/beloved relationship?

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