Drew Milne, 'In Memory of the Pterodactyl: the limits of lyric humanism', first published in The Paper, no. 2 (September, 2001), pp. 16-29.

Theodor Adorno’s essay ‘On Lyric Poetry and Society’ argues that ‘the lyric work is always the subjective expression of a social antagonism’ (1), but what of lyric’s constitutive inhumanity, its relation to non-human nature? According to Adorno, the first person ‘I’ whose voice is heard in lyric expresses an individual particularity which is opposed to the collectivity of human nature. There is then a tension or lack of identity in the illusory immediacy of subjective experience in lyric poetry. The voice that seems most human expresses the immediacy of human nature but does so as an expression of the historical struggle to humanise nature in language. As Adorno puts it, the ‘I’ whose voice is heard ‘is not immediately at one with the nature to which its expression refers.’ Accordingly, ‘It is only through humanization that nature is to be restored the rights that human domination took from itÖ. the greatest lyric works in our language, owe their quality to the force with which the "I" creates the illusion of nature emerging from alienation.’ (2) As Adorno points out, the assumption that immediacy and subjectivity are essential to lyric expression is modern. Greek lyricism in the works of Sappho, Pindar and the choral odes of the tragedians positions the muses closer to the gods and the mythic forces of nature. This brief essay seeks to suggest, against the grain of Adorno’s conception of lyric, that the limits of lyric humanism remain closer to this ancient conception of lyric and the speculative experience of nature.

The ur-image of the human domination of human nature for the sake of lyric experience is provided by Homer’s Odyssey and the story of Odysseus bound to the mast of his ship to hear the sirens. This image informs central arguments in the Dialectic of Enlightenment which Adorno wrote with Max Horkheimer.(3) Adorno and Horkheimer do not make the connections explicit, but Adorno’s essay ‘Parataxis’ intimates the way in which Adorno’s unusual historical imagination is informed by Hölderlin: ‘Metaphysical passivity as the substance of Hölderlin’s poetry is allied, in opposition to myth, with the hope for a reality in which humanity would be free of the spell of its entanglement in natureÖ’ (4) A different source, closer to Adorno’s affinities with Walter Benjamin, is provided by Franz Kafka’s parable ‘The Silence of the Sirens’. Kafka’s retelling concludes with the mischievous suggestion that Ulysses noticed that the sirens were silent but pretended to have heard the sirens as a sort of shield.(5)

Who or what are the sirens? If the nature of these creatures of the imagination is beyond the limits of human perception, myth nevertheless imagines them as feminine, winged creatures. The sirens lose their allure if they are imagined as singing mermaids of the sky, or as condors of the mediterranean. Pictorial representation or physical embodiment of the sources of sublime sound is fraught with the risk of bathos. As opera singers so often demonstrate, opera sounds better with the eyes shut. Where the thematics of lyric are used as a tool of erotic seduction, as with pop songs, the presence of the singer can be an added attraction. With lyric poetry of the page, however, there is a necessary awkwardness when a lyric poet performs their work. As writing, lyric is freed from the human clumsiness of speech, and in this freedom it is possible to imagine the voices of nature beyond the human.

The sources of the imagination’s siren songs are understood critically in a number of modern poems, perhaps most beautifully in Wallace Stevens’s ‘The Idea of Order at Key West’ and its tale of the feminine voice that sings beyond the genius of the sea:

She was the single artificer of the world
In which she sang. And when she sang, the sea,
Whatever self it had, became the self
That was her song, for she was the maker. Then we,
As we beheld her striding there alone,
Knew that there never was a world for her
Except the one she sang and, singing, made. (6)

In this poem the humanisation of the muse as a female voice of nature equivocates with the powers of personification. The poem’s blemish is the word ‘striding’, which somehow suggests an image of seaside health and athleticism: the physical form of the female pronoun becomes too human. The potential for bathos would not be lessened if the isolated figure were described as a flock of seagulls or as a bevy of bathing beauties of the kind that enchanted Odysseus on the shores of Ithaca, or Proust’s narrator at Balbec. Such images find their critical recension in Cezanne’s Bathers. Stevens nevertheless leaves this blemish to lure the unwary poetry-lover into a false literalism. A feminised but inhuman lyric power of sea, song, wind and air could not be anything other than an imagined projection. In this sense, the poem’s pathetic fallacy composes its ‘enchanting’ night to enjoy the artifice of the lyric imagination. The spell of enchantment nevertheless hints at the illusory powers of the chanter, the incantatory web of the chanson. The dialectic of subjectivity and objectivity in this poem is exemplary but perhaps too tidily organised. Stevens’s mask and poetic persona evades the lure of self-aggrandizing first person sensitivity, but is a little too proud of his ‘idea’ and of his ability to tame the powers of nature in song.

The necessary scepticism before such visions is captured by Prufrock: ‘I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each. / I do not think they will sing to me.’ (7) Eliot’s dark irony suggests that we drown when human voices wake us from the dream of poetry. The limits of lyric irony are such that Prufrock’s reflections on alienation from human expression seem too much like a knowingly performed identification with a nature that cannot be known: ‘I should have been a pair of ragged claws / Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.’ (8) In ‘The Waste Land’ the critique of the ‘sylvan scene’ above the antique mantel gives voice to the raped Philomel who cries ‘Jug Jug’ to dirty ears.(9) The myth of Philomel’s transformation into a swallow or a nightingale positions a lament for the victims of male rape within birdsong. Eliot’s deliberately unpoetic ‘jug’ intimates what sticks in the jugular, and speaks of a distaste with the unspoken violence in tasteful representations of classical myth. The rape victim’s loss of human speech in the metamorphosis from human to avian nature somehow returns from its poetic alienation in the refusal to sing suggested by ‘jug’. Eliot’s investigation into the ruins of lyric nevertheless seems to embrace alienation from the human world rather than working to disenchant the violence of human nature.

What makes such moments important, however, is the way they reveal the difficulty of overcoming the lyric thematics of romanticism, perhaps most famously expressed in the viewless wings of poesy in Keats’s ‘Ode to a Nightingale’. The immortal Bird of lyric poetry may sing beyond death in the aching dreams of lyric illusion, but romanticism’s birdsongs are already sung at the limits of imaginative projection. The prophetic powers of Shelley’s west wind and the blithe spirit of the skylark are pitched at the limits of a known estrangement from the ecstasies evoked. The crimes committed in the name of nature’s spirit find their most pointed allegorical form in Coleridge’s ‘Rime of the Ancient Mariner’. The dead albatross of lyric projection hangs around the neck of the would-be modernist. According to Hegel, the vocation of poetry is to liberate spirit ‘not from but in feeling’ (10), but romanticism’s intimations of the sublimities to be felt in nature protest too much about all the yearning. As Wordsworth puts it, the world is too much with us, and poetry is reduced to presenting the protean dreams of Proteus and that male mermaid Triton in the form of regret for the loss of paganism and poetry’s spent powers.(11) This critique echoes in Keats’s sonnet ‘On the Sea’:

Oh ye! whose ears are dinn’d with uproar rude,
Or fed too much with cloying melody—
Sit ye near some old Cavern’s Mouth, and brood
Until ye start, as if the sea-nymphs quir’d! (12)

The affected antique spelling of ‘quire’ might be read as a cheeky pun on choirs and the booktrade meaning of ‘quire’ (a set of four sheets of parchment paper). A more plausible interpretation would put pressure on the sense of embarrassment with the desire to have your sea-nymph cake and eat it too. You can imagine Busby Berkeley bathing babes, but the wild vulgarity of the mythic imagination needs to be tamed to weariness.

There is a comparable embarrassment with the artifice of song in a remark in Hegel’s Aesthetics which describes Gesang or songs sung domestically. The relevant passage is translated by T.M. Knox as ‘the song proper, meant for warbling in private or for singing in company. This does not require much substance or inner grandeur and loftinessÖ’ (13) There is a high-low opposition at work here, but the curious expression is ‘warbling in private’. F.P.B. Osmaston’s earlier translation gives: ‘the genuine song intended for singing or purely musical practice, whether in private or before others. Much intelligible content, ideal greatness and loftiness is not necessary.’ (14) This phrase ‘purely musical practice’ is footnoted with: ‘I presume Hegel means this by the words nur zum Trällern; it might mean "merely to be hummed."’ (15) The doubt here is generated by the German verb ‘trällern’ which can mean to hum, trill or warble. It is tempting to see a grouping of onomatopoeic words clustered around the sound of trilling and ‘trill’, with cognates in French and Italian. There seems to be a poetic identity between the word and the action of the tongue involved in saying the word. This temptation meets the thought that there might also be some connection between ‘trällern’ and ‘tra-la-la’, a word which also appears to mime melodic utterance. In the context of Hegel’s passage, the thought of songs for domestic ‘warbling’ jars in English, perhaps because ‘warbling’ is somewhat pejorative. The human songbird folds into associations with avian warblers, those small insectivorous songbirds whose song has become their collective name. It seems plausible that Hegel means something more like ‘humming’ in private, but here too there are animistic residues – humming birds, bees and the humdrum chores of routine work. Trällern and its possible translations are positioned, then, between the grace notes of the nobler human arts and the less dignified music of the private individual. ‘Warbling’ ironically indicates some of the social embarrassment with private singing that attaches to those caught in the act of meditative whistling (the sign of a liar) or singing in the shower.

If there is something suspiciously ignoble, almost animalistic about such kinds of lyric expression, this suspicion finds its inverse form in the anthropomorphic explanations of birdsong. As Kant comments, ‘The song of the bird proclaims joyfulness and contentment with its existence. At least this is how we interpret nature, whether anything of the sort is its intention or not. But this interest, which we here take in beauty, absolutely requires that it be the beauty of nature; and it disappears entirely as soon as one notices that one has been deceived and that it is only artÖ What is more highly extolled by poets than the bewitchingly beautiful song of the nightingaleÖ ’ (16) Art, here, is critically construed as that which is merely human and inferior to natural beauty. Kant is concerned to distinguish the powers of human judgment as regards natural beauty, but the question of beauty inevitably seems too anthropomorphic. One can imagine scientific experiments designed to investigate whether birds sing because it is their ‘nature’ to do so; whether birdsong is predominantly the activity of male songbirds; whether birdsong functions as a semiotics of danger-signalling, sexual display or territorial assertion; and so on. The human perception of spirit in natural beauty nevertheless suggests the limits of scientific reasoning, since there is evidently an unreconciled affinity between birds and humans in such perceptions. This affinity allows the lyric poet to explore both the limits of humanism in our conceptions of song and the limits to disenchantment in the human domination of nature.

The thematics of disenchantment return the argument to Adorno’s conception of lyric poetry and society. Curiously, Adorno’s essay chooses not to focus on the line from Eduard Mörike’s ‘Auf einer Wanderung’ that brings these questions into play: ‘Und eine Stimme scheint ein Nachtingallenchor’ / ‘And one voice seems to be a choir of nightingales’ (17). Adorno waxes somewhat lyrical and infers an identification between a girl’s voice, the muse, and the choir of nature, without quite noting the illusory projection onto nature and femininity. A similar difficulty with sexuality and nature underlies Adorno’s dialectic of enlightenment and the relation between Odysseus and the sirens. The eroticism of the Homeric version of the myth is muted, and the spirit of wildness intimated by the image of the sirens disguising death in alluring illusions is indeterminately dangerous. If there is some violence in the way Horkheimer and Adorno read Homer as a parable of the capitalist division of labour, their reading of Odysseus’s domination of human nature to achieve a moment of aesthetic freedom now seems especially pertinent. The relevance of their critical construction can be sensed in the way Denise Riley argues for the possibilities of nonidentitarian solidarity in relation to what she calls ‘Lyric selves’. (18) The central chapter of The Words of Selves pursues her critical argument through a commentary on her own poems, ‘The Castalian Spring, a first draught’ and ‘Affections of the Ear’. Riley asks whether the lyric "I" is an irretrievably outdated form. She cites The Poet’s I in Archaic Greek, ed. S.R. Sling (1990) to suggest the antiquity of the question. As Riley argues, ‘Presenting the self and its fine sensibilities reaches fever pitch within some contemporary poetics. Poetry can be heard to stagger under a weight of self-portrayal, having taken this as its sole and proper object. Today’s lyric form, frequently a vehicle for innocuous display and confessionals, is at odds with its remoter history. What might transpire if this discontinuous legacy in self-telling became the topic of a poem itself?’ (R 94) Her poem ‘The Castalian Spring, a first draught’ explores these questions by working through some of lyric’s historical conditions of possibility: "Into the cooling air I gave tongue, my ears blurred with the lyre / Of my layrnx, its vibrato reverberant into the struck-dumb dusk."(R 95) The poem’s lyric persona identifies with a toad rather than with a nightingale, but the reprise of alienation from anthropomorphic identification with nature generates a moment of lyrical noise comparable to Eliot’s ‘Jug Jug’:

Could I try on that song of my sociologized self? Its
Long angry flounce, tuned to piping self-sorrow, flopped
Lax in my gullet—‘But we’re all bufo bufo’, I sobbed—
Suddenly charmed by community—‘all warty we are’. (R 103)

Riley’s other poem, ‘Affections of the Ear’, reworks the Ovidian tale of Narcissus and Echo to explore strategies of ironic classicism and shimmering anxieties about subjective identifications. Part of the poetic strategy is the use of what Riley, with deliberate self-defeating irony, calls a ‘a chatty conversational tone’ (R 94), a tone that seems closer to the poetic theatricality of Frank O’Hara than the more classical lyricism of Hölderlin, some of whose poems Riley has translated.(19) The conversational tone sets up a dialogue between animal persona, human speech and classical myth but the domination of human voice over the material works against the poem’s uncertainties about lyric humanism. A different exploration of lyric humanism informs the poems in Helen Macdonald’s collection Shaler’s Fish. Despite the fishy title, the collection is dominated by birdlife thematics. The opening poem ‘Taxonomy’ begins: "Wren. Full song. No subsong. Call of alarm, spreketh & ought / damage the eyes with its form, small body, tail pricked up & beak like a hair " (20). The quality of taxonomy involved interrupts the grammar of scientific description and the functional explanation of wren song. The title of a subsequent poem ‘Blackbird / Jackdaw / Turdus / Corvus / merula / monedula’ plays with the anthropomorphic, scientific language of bird-names, while the poem entitled ‘Hyperion to a Satellite’ gives further indications of the conflict between poetic antiquity and modern rationality. The notes to ‘Poem, for Bill Girden’ in Keith Tuma’s Anthology of Twentieth-Century British & Irish Poetry help explain how, in Macdonald’s words, ‘The poem responds to an article by Bill Girden I read in the falconry anthology A Bond with the Wild.’ (21) Wild birds animate the poem:

"This is hardly a flaw; it simply is" you say, then drop
like a lark in abeyance of song to mitigate sward.
My pen crumples into a swan, it is singing
inauthenticate myth, and not of future splendour. (M 22)

Talk of swans inevitably raises the spectre of Leda and Yeats, but here the agency of lyric writing as a form of nature (pen / quill / feather) offers an ambiguous swan song. Keith Tuma comments that ‘it is not clear whether the pen wounds or becomes the swan. Might the pen "sing" a swan stripped of anthropomorphizing myth?’ (22) The answer is that it cannot. However much humans imagine bonds with the wild, not even poetic identification can liberate itself from the taming of nature for human purposes. Macdonald’s poetry is intimate with such difficulties, to the extent that it seems important that her use of bird imagery is not simply bookish but is grounded in experience. In the late 1990s she worked for the National Avian Research Center, Abu Dahbi, breeding falcons. The authority of experience usually seems an awkward critical ruse, and it may be that without this authorial context the avian thematics would seem affected. The poems recurrently counterpose antique fragments of poetic history with different bird-like perceptions. It becomes difficult not to over-interpret the status of wild birds and human agency where other questions might be more central. This said, the way bird similes are awkwardly humanised is remarkable:" I am valorous in the face of such kindness, as ravens on pylons / stock doves and the roll of limestone bulks out our version / ripping out a throat in even dreams, eyes shut & breathing / concentrating on the sodden lack of the heart, and its sharp depths / up for retching on sweetness: sugar, tunes, airs, the memory of love" (M 42). Macdonald offers one of the most sustained explorations of avian imagery in recent lyric poetry, and this extends to speculative commentary on the human domination of the airwaves for purposes of danger-signalling, sexual display and territorial assertion, from the radio telescopes of Jodrell Bank to CNN. The poem ‘Earth Station’ talks of: 'constructing a beautiful personal cosmology from the inclination / of space and communicative links, where the dishes’ upturned curves / represent immortality and such, so that nights long they could be watched / as the band of microwave radiation pushed up through low cloud / / as ravens slope-soaring on the updraught from the dish’s face Ö' (M 58) The evasive ‘and such’ seals the energy of uncertain identification. To imagine birds as ancient as ravens adapting to large dishes (hyperion to a satellite-dish) within a speculative cosmology prompts thoughts on the history of avian life and modern aviation. I’m reminded of Hans Blumenberg’s The Genesis of the Copernican World , and his account of the cosmology of the heavens and anthropomorphic geocentrism. (23)

In Sappho’s lyrical world, the chariot of Venus is pulled by sparrows. In Macdonald’s world, mythic images have metamorphosed into intimations of the limits of human song. Hegel’s chosen image to represent the flight of philosophy was the Owl of Minerva. But as well as providing the figurative resources of the classical muses, the Greek language also persists in the supposedly technical language of poetry and scientific taxonomy. Consider the etymology of the Petrodactyl: pteron is the Greek word for wing, and dactylos is the Greek for finger. Nineteenth century science named these dinosaur birds with words that also find their way in classical prosody. If poetry is the language of winged words, then poetry has a curious affinity with these ancient creatures. Some birds sing with a sweetness recognisable to humans, while others, such as croaking crows and ravens, make sounds that seem haunted by ancient terrors, terrors perhaps most vivid in the popular imagination thanks to Hitchcock’s film The Birds. What would a poetics of the birds of ill omen sound like? Perhaps, at the limits of lyric humanism, the significance of poetic birdsong needs to be extended to hear the ancient ghosts and laments of the pterodactyl.

1. T.W. Adorno, ‘On Lyric Poetry and Society’, Notes to Literature, vol. 1, trans. Shierry Weber Nicholsen (New York: Columbia University Press, 1991), pp. 37 – 54 (p. 45).
2. Adorno, ‘On Lyric Poetry and Society’, p. 41.
3. T.W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer, Dialectic of Enlightenment, trans. John Cumming (London: Verso, 1979), esp., ‘Excursus 1: Odysseus or Myth and Enlightenment’, pp. 43-80. For a critique, see Jürgen Habermas, ‘The Entwinement of Myth and Enlightenment: Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno', The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity, trans. Frederick Lawrence (Cambridge: Polity, 1987), pp. 106-130.
4. T.W.Adorno, ‘Parataxis: On Hölderlin’s Late Poetry’, Notes to Literature, vol. 2, trans. Shierry Weber Nicholsen (New York: Columbia University Press, 1992), pp. 109-149 (p. 149).
5. See Franz Kafka, ‘The Silence of the Sirens’, trans. Willa and Edwin Muir, The Collected Short Stories of Franz Kafka, ed. Nahum N. Glatzer (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1988), pp. 430-2.
6. Wallace Stevens, ‘The Idea of Order at Key West’, Collected Poems (London: Faber and Faber, 1955), pp. 128-30 (pp.129-30).
7. T.S. Eliot, ‘The Love Song of J.Alfred Prufrock’, Collected Poems, 1909-1962 (London: Faber and Faber, 1974), pp. 13-17 (p. 17).
8. Eliot, ‘Prufrock’, p. 15.
9. Eliot, ‘The Waste Land’, Collected Poems, pp. 61-92 (p. 66).
10. G.W.F. Hegel, Aesthetics: Lectures on Fine Art, trans. T.M. Knox (Oxford: Clarendon, 1975), 2 vols., vol. II, p. 1112.
11. William Wordsworth, ‘The world is too much with us’, William Wordsworth, ed. Stephen Gill (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984), p. 270.
12. John Keats, ‘On the Sea’, The Poetical Works of John Keats, ed. H. Buxton Forman (London: Oxford University Press, 1907), p. 295.
13. Hegel, Aesthetics, trans. T.M. Knox, vol. II, p. 1143.
14. G.W.F. Hegel, The Philosophy of Fine Art, trans. F.P.B. Osmaston, 4 vols., (London: G. Bell, 1920), vol. IV, p. 230.
15. Hegel, Philosophy of Fine Art, trans. F.P.B. Osmaston, vol. IV, p. 230.
16. Immanuel Kant, Critique of the Power of judgment, ed. Paul Guyer, trans. Paul Guyer and Eric Matthews (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), pp. 181-2.
17. poem and translation quoted in Adorno, ‘On Lyric Poetry and Society’, p. 47.
18. Denise Riley, The Words of Selves: Identification, Solidarity, Irony (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2000). References hereafter abbreviated to R and page no.
19. See Denise Riley, ‘Versions of six poems by Friedrich Hölderlin (1770-1843)’, Dry Air (London: Virago, 1985), pp. 33-41.
20. Helen Macdonald, Shaler’s Fish (Buckfastleigh: Etruscan, 2001), p. 7. References hereafter abbreviated to M and page no.
21. Keith Tuma, ed., Anthology of Twentieth-Century British & Irish Poetry (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), p. 934.
22. Tuma, p. 931.
23. Hans Blumenberg, The Genesis of the Copernican World, trans. Robert M. Wallace (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT, 1987). On the thematics of mythic residues more generally, see also Hans Blumenberg, Work on Myth, trans. Robert M. Wallace (Cambridge, Mass: MIT, 1985).


Copyright 2009, Drew Milne