Introduction - A crow’s flight into the forest - A tiny house in a tiny village
A church in the sky - A car on the highway - A master in the forest
A Student Essay on “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer”
The category of space is fundamental to artistic creation. One could argue that space is so crucial because it’s what we live in, and in order to represent our lives we must represent space. Realistic space can range from atoms to an arm’s reach, a room, a building, a neighbourhood, a lake, a mountain range, a continent, the world, and the stars.
Fantastic or mythic spaces can take many forms, from the quasi-scientific universes of Star Trek and the Marvel Universe to the fantastic realms of Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones. Among the most famous of mythic spaces is Dante's Inferno and Paradise, here illustrated by Gustave Doré:
Heaven and Hell often have more to do with time in the future (2), the belief system of a character (3), or the theme of religion (5), unless the actual spatial description of Heaven and Hell is central, as it is in Dante’s Divine Comedy, where the poet descends into the Underworld and then ascends to Heaven.
Geography lies behind language and culture, so where writers come from is often crucial. Writers living in China will most likely write in Chinese, and their influences and expressions will largely come from the Chinese world around them. Most Chinese poets will be more familiar with the Chinese poet Li Bai than with the French poet Charles Baudelaire. They’ll be intimately familiar with the tonality of language, whereas French poets will be intimately familiar with the many forms of the subjunctive verb tense. The great complement to geography (1) is history (2), which determines the nature of culture and language at any given moment. If Baudelaire and Li Bai wrote in 21st Century France and China, their writings would be different.
In analyzing space, you might ask the following questions: Why does the writer give the story a particular setting? What kinds of situations or reflections does this setting allow? How is the setting described so that we feel or think in a certain way? Does the setting reverberate with our feelings or with the feelings of the protagonist? Does the setting reflect or help to create a character, conflict, or theme?
When people say, “the text is set in Victorian England,” they may be referring to setting (1) or time-period (2), or both. In developing your arguments, keep your focus in mind. In this case, is it what Victorian England looks like in terms of such things as décor and architecture (1) or is it the qualities of the historical moment (2), such as the rise of technology and voting?
A Crow’s Flight into the Forest
In the following lines from the play Macbeth, Shakespeare suggests ominous evil by combining three spatial elements: a forest, diminishing light, and the flight of a dark bird:
[…] Light thickens; and the crow
Makes wing to the rooky* wood:
Good things of day begin to droop and drowse;
While night's black agents to their preys do rouse.
*black and filled with rooks (crows)
The context of the description is grim: Macbeth is telling his wife that he’s going to kill his best friend as well as his best friend’s son. The language is potent and symbolic (6): that “light thickens” gives palpable sense to what is otherwise not easily felt, while the loss of light suggests the rise of evil and the fall of goodness — hence the good things that “droop and dowse.” The bird who inhabits this thick air also symbolizes evil — both because of its black colour and because of its flight into the forest, which is the traditional location of danger, darkness, savagery, being lost, and going astray. The image (6) of a crow entering a forest is magnified by switching from one crow to many, by referring to the group of birds as agents (of the Devil or of evil spirits, one assumes), and by the explicit reference to the prey they will hunt down and kill.
This type of dark flight is used to great advantage by Tolkien in Lord of the Rings, when the Nazgul serving the Dark Lord Sauron mount gigantic dark birds who stalk and terrorize the heroic travellers from above.
A Tiny House in a Tiny Village
In the first paragraph of his short story “A Horse and Two Goats” (1970) R.K. Narayan uses a map and geography (1) to suggest the enormity of India. He creates this large framework (zooming in on Southern India) so that we can see that his protagonist comes from a village that is very small and off the beaten track. In this village his protagonist has an even smaller location: a humble house on the very outskirts of the tiny village. Narayan uses this setting (1) to introduce the notion that Muni is very low in the social and economic hierarchy (4) and later contrasts Muni’s humble station in life with his grandiose religious conception of cosmic space (1) and time (2).
Muni’s spatial isolation and marginalization (1) sets up a strong contrast with the American tourist who drives by and stops to talk with him. The American speaks in English and Muni speaks in Tamil, a linguistic divide (4) which underscores the cultural divide (4). In the next excerpt, Muni has no intention of taking the horse statue anywhere, yet somehow the American tourist has got it into his head that Muni wants to do this. Likewise, the American has no idea what Muni is talking about when Muni sails off into stories about Hindu deities….
A church in the sky
Yeah, you're lookin' at the church in the night sky
Wonderin' whether God's gonna say hi. ("Saint Pablo," 2016, Kanye West)
Here the poet's on the Earth looking into the sky, which has been the location (1) of gods and mythic figures since the beginning of civilization. Since the sky is often seen as the location (1) of God, and since a church is where people worship God, then the church in the night sky may simply be reinforcing the notion that God's up there. Yet the song is called “Saint Pablo,” the Spanish name for Saint Paul. In the New Testament (Acts 9) Paul is on his way to Damascus when “suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him.” After this experience, Paul changes his direction in life: he goes from arguing against Christianity to being its greatest known author. Perhaps by alluding (6) to Saint Paul in this way West is suggesting that he’s like Saint Paul: he’s lost his way and is looking for a flash or sign from Heaven. This might fit with his grandiose claims of being “the most influential” and “wakin’ the spirit of millions” with his “truth” in the first half of the song, and with his humbling himself before the court, standing under oath, and crying at the bar in the second half.
In writing about literature, always use the writer’s last name. Here, use “West” rather than the more familiar “Kanye.”
A car on the highway
In "Life in the Fast Lane" (1976), the Eagles make extensive use of ambiguous and metaphoric spaces (1) to explore the dangers of a reckless and hedonistic lifestyle:
There were lines on the mirror, lines on her face.
She pretended not to notice, she was caught up in the race.
The first line here most likely refers to lines of cocaine, and links these to the lines on a woman's face, yet there’s also an oblique reference to lines of sight. The second line picks up on the idea of sight lines, suggesting that while the woman may see her own reflection in the mirror, she doesn't mentally reflect on the damage this could cause. Her recklessness connects directly to the title of the song, which is repeated in the chorus: "Life in the Fast Lane" and in the metaphor (6) of driving recklessly:
They had one thing in common, they were good in bed.
She said, "Faster, faster, the light's are turning red."
Here the setting (1) is used to comment on a sexual encounter (4), yet also on where their relationship is going (4). Both figures are “caught up in the race," that is, both need to look out for warnings of danger — seen metaphorically (6) in terms of a driving a car on a road, being so blasted (perhaps on the previously suggested cocaine) that they don’t see the stop sign, and having an accident (with a pun on the phrase turn for the worse):
Blowin' and burnin,' blinded by thirst
They didn't see the stop sign, took a turn for the worse
'Driving in the fast lane' is thus a spatial (1) analogy (6) which starts off as a metaphor (6) and ends up as an extended metaphor, otherwise known as a conceit (6).
A master in the forest
In the following poem by the Buddhist Jia Dao (779–843), the spatial focus (1) shifts from close to distant, from specific to vague, and from human-centred to nature-centred:
Under a pine I asked the pupil
who said, “The Master is gone to gather balm
somewhere in the mountains,
but the cloud is so thick that I cannot say where."
The initial setting is specific and clear, yet by the end of the poem we realize there's more to this setting than first appeared. The pupil is alone, when presumably the master should be present to guide the pupil. The poet here uses a paradox (6): while the master isn't there to teach, his absence teaches the pupil to learn for himself. The master also gives a subtle hint about how the pupil might learn: by looking into nature. This theme of learning from nature (5) is implied in the physical direction (1) the master's taken: into the depth of the mountains.
The location (1) of the poem (China) and the (2) time period (9th Century) encourage a traditional philosophical reading, rather than a contemporary existential or political one. Given that both Buddhism and Daoism urge letting go of the self and contemplating vast stretches of space and time, it's not surprising that the master doesn't feel the psychological need (3) to be present or to assert his name or importance in any concrete way. Nor does he feel the need to clarify or systematize his version of the truth — a situation which might be different if the master was following the Confucian model, which tends to be more explicit in its pedagogical aims and structures.
Jia Dao sets up a spatial situation where the poet is set apart from the pupil, who then tells the poet where the teacher has gone. The simplicity of this triangular situation allows the reader to move on from the poet and the pupil to what the pupil says about the master, most of which has a strong spatial element. If one were to see the situation geometrically, the poet and the pupil would form the narrow base of an isosceles triangle, out from which two long lines stretch outward and upward to the location of the master. Since the master's location isn't known, the triangle has no apex. Just as there's no practical or mathematical way to see the master — or to make final sense of the triangle — so there's no philosophical way to understand the meaning of life. Exploration is everything.
Each spatial detail becomes important at this point: that the master has gone into nature “to gather balm" suggests that the master's aim is to heal or soothe; that the master's "somewhere" in the mountains suggests that most people can't understand exactly where a master goes mentally or spiritually; that the master's in "the mountains" suggests that nature is a deep and lofty source of wisdom and spirituality; that the pupil says the "cloud is [...] thick" suggests that the mysteries penetrated by the master aren't easily penetrated by most people; that the pupil "cannot say where" the master has gone suggests that he can't understand the master, or perhaps that the master's experience is ineffable, beyond explanation.
The theme (5) of the poem is difficult to pin down, yet it appears to be the difference between common perception and mystical perception. Or perhaps it's the manner in which mystics might pass on their understanding or experience. The style or structure is metaphoric and allusive (6): concrete aspects of the setting (1) take on vague philosophical meanings (5), and allusions to nature (6) are more easily appreciated if we know something about the philosophies of Buddhism and Daoism, especially in contrast with the more down-to-earth, practical, scholastic tradition of Confucianism.
In comparing Jia Dao’s poem to the excerpt from Macbeth, one can see that the forest may have sinister connotations in one context and benevolent connotations in another. While the thickness of the air or cloud suggests obscurity in both cases, this thickness also suggests two completely different meanings: in Macbeth it suggests deep evil, while in “Under a Pine” it suggests deep wisdom. This is perhaps a case where Hamlet is right, “there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so” (Act 2, Scene 2). Another way of putting this is that both Shakespeare and Jia Dao are employing pathetic fallacy (6), wherein humans fallaciously project their own emotions (their pathos) onto an indifferent nature, in order to create a poetic or emotional effect.
A Student Essay on “When I Heard the Learned Astronomer”
When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer (Walt Whitman, 1867)
When I heard the learn'd astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts and diagrams,
to add, divide, and measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured
with much applause in the lecture room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander'd off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time
Look'd up in perfect silence at the stars.
The Beauty in Simplicity
by Hayleigh Giesbrecht
The experience of isolation and loneliness is one of the most acute emotions of the human condition. In a society which demands that logic be applied to all of earth’s features and that no question goes unanswered, it is often conflicting to value the inexplicable. In his 1867 poem “When I Heard the Learned Astronomer,” Walt Whitman illustrates this emotion through the short tale of someone who sees beauty in the night sky as soon as they abandon its concentrated study. Whitman contrasts mystery with measurability, open spaces with closed, and in doing so, he elicits the reader to empathize with the protagonist’s alienation and to see the surrounding beauty by simply appreciating it rather than fully understanding it.
Space becomes the predominant mechanism that Whitman uses to illustrate this contrast. Initially, the quantifiable “charts and diagrams, / to add, divide, and measure” applies to the lecture room its pervasively stifling quality. Whitman also describes how the “proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before [him],” implying a verticality in the “columns” that is important as the poem progresses and he observes the galaxies above him. Whitman even specifically includes that he was sitting while listening to the astronomer drone on, whereas later he “rises and glides” out of the lecture room in a manifestation of his newfound freedom.
The enigmatic language of the latter half of the poem suggests the relief he feels physically and mentally when he leaves the room. He becomes “tired and sick” until he can finally wander into the night and admire the stars. In the open space, however, nothing is calculable; even time becomes ambiguous as he notes that “from time to time / [he] look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.” Perhaps even the “moist night-air” contrasts the dryness of the lecture content. It is also crucial to note that Whitman wrote within the period of American transcendentalism of the mid-19thcentury. As such, the absence of overtly religious references is replaced with arcane and mystic descriptions that are underpinned by the fixation on nature characteristic of that school of thought. In this style, Whitman’s poem utilizes the vastness of space, a.k.a. the modernized “higher being”, to compound his freedom, or salvation, which is synonymous with his loneliness.
Furthermore, Whitman constructs a defined character progression throughout the short poem. While the protagonist obviously feels liberated upon escaping into the night, he also implicitly feels a sense of loneliness. He remarks that the astronomer “lectured / with much applause,” giving the impression that the protagonist feels estranged from his colleagues’ voracious idolatry of the unyielding figures. He feels misunderstood in his love of the very thing they are trying to examine. The charts and diagrams are ironically described very vaguely, signaling that because he does not appreciate or even understand those aspects of astronomy, he is different from his peers. However, Whitman does not necessarily assert that he feels disenfranchised or frustrated by his isolation. By existing alone and in “perfect silence” amongst the mysticism of his surroundings, he indicates that, rather, he finds solace in his solitude.
The characterization of all the graphs and calculations are very pedestrian; Whitman is almost mocking the apparent obsession that people have with deducing the beauty he sees down to numbers. However, he’s not belittling those people. Instead, he is imploring the reader to also share his perception of the beauty in simplicity. He certainly does not intend to undermine the value of understanding the world in tangible terms, but only means to express that it is acceptable to adore what one does not truly understand, and that people should embrace the intangible.
Word Count: 607