The Illiterate’s Rhetoric
Gregerson’s article “Rhetorical Context in the Lyric Poem” explains how lyric poetry works. She claims that the relationship between the speaker and the reader goes beyond the surface or utilitarian purposes of the poem, and that they form a contract. Gregerson uses the concepts of subtext and hidden meaning in her article to different lyric poems. A lyric poem is a way to tell a story. But it’s not always clear. Instead of writing a storyline, the reader must look into the space between each word to understand the meaning.
Gregerson’s comments on Meredith’s The Illiterate are particularly interesting. She claims Meredith creates a self-concept using the actual words in the poem, not just their base meanings. The deeper meaning of the poem is revealed by the choices in syntax, grammar, or content. Meredith’s syntax should be closely examined and questioned by the reader. The reader must try to understand Meredith’s thinking process and form a unique bond with the poet. As little details take on greater significance, the meanings of the poems are transformed. This simile is used by the speaker to convey his mental state. He is unable to understand words but instead loves. To express his inexperience with the situation surrounding the “goodness”, he uses the image a illiterate male to do so. Meredith claims that the reason the letter is difficult to read is not that it has been written in an unfamiliar handwriting. The experience of receiving a letter is not unfamiliar. This is similar to the experience of the poet. Although he is at his wits end because he is entering a new relationship, if he has ever been in one of these relationships, he isn’t at all at loss.
This begs questions about the type of relationship that this describes. It describes the state of virginity. You are not sure what you’re going to get. Gregerson shifts the focus away from hetero-normative or youthful virginity and instead focuses on virginity in homoerotic encounters. Gregerson 175, she claims, “The dark girl may also refer to Shakespeare’s dark woman and so a coded way to the primary love–the homoerotic one–in the poem is grounded.” These sonnets express homoerotic feelings. This lens shows the speaker’s hope that the man who is ashamed of his homoerotic desire will change and become the object he loves. Gregerson can’t prove this point, but it brings to mind an alternative interpretation: homoerotic love.
Meredith may have been gay and placed the speaker in an unrequited relationship. The reader has invested energy in understanding the poet’s intentions and the poet then turns to the audience and relays a message. The poem’s self is a vehicle to convey a message. Gregerson’s lyric poetry reflects the symbiosis in love and opposition to it. Sonnets are, in her opinion, always contradictory because they deal with paradoxical existence. She says, “Implicity was as central to the sonnet’s content as love.” Impediment created the lyric voice. A lover who is free from impediment would be able to use poetry without any difficulty” (Gregerson 167). The poem wouldn’t be necessary if either the man or the woman were literate. These obstacles give rise to tension and provide an incentive for the poet to create the poem.
The meaning of the poem goes beyond its practicality or the words themselves. This poem is notable for its rhyme scheme. It is very simple. The rhyme scheme can be either monosyllabic (means means), or polysyllabic (anyone? someone) and includes the same word. Gregerson says that this juvenile rhyming style suggests a lack of creativity from the poet. (Gregerson 176) Meredith was a Pulitzer Prize winner in poetry. It is clear that Meredith simplified his rhyme scheme to illustrate the poor language skills of the illiterate. These are the words that children encounter when they learn to read. However, even though these words are understandable to an illiterate man, they are still useful. He doesn’t have a baseline from which to work, nor can he find the letter’s contents unless he asks someone.
Meredith’s rhyme method also has another reason. It adds repetition to the repetitious parts of the poem. The illiterate man flips the letter around in his hands, nipping it and then putting it away. The entire poem is static. We don’t know what the man does with the letter. Do they consult others or attempt to solve it himself? This information is not available to the reader, who instead sees only the thoughts and possibilities of the man. This rhyme enhances the idea that you will know what is coming next. The loop of possibilities that the illiterate man has in his mind is the same as the rhyme, which is predictable and does not allow for any new developments.
Asking someone to help an illiterate man find out the contents of a letter is the only way to do so. This is embarrassing because he may have to admit that his eyes are not able to read. He might also be embarrassed to invite another person into the private parts of his life. In his inadequacy to understand the contents of the letter, he is vulnerable. If it’s a letter with bad news from his parent or a proclamation of love from a dark girl, he’ll undoubtedly react strongly to it. This is a very uncomfortable feeling. The speaker is also vulnerable if he asks for advice on a relationship. It is difficult to get help in a foreign context. This is an extremely personal situation, and it is hard to invite another person.
The poem is slow and conveys a sense of anticipation. Meredith uses commas in her poem, which slows down the already slow pace. The commas give the poem a disjointed feeling. The poem must be read slowly and the reader must stop often. This is similar to the story of the speaker. Both the speaker and the illiterate man embody the same hesitance, which is a sign of inexperience. It is not about being reckless in letting go of your inhibitions and diving into new worlds. It is more conservative and protective. The illiterate is unable to identify all the possible contents of the letter and determine what they are. He holds a letter and looks inside. He “preserves the possibility,” regardless of whether the news is good and bad (Gregerson, 176). This poem is slightly pessimistic, as he wants to know the contents of any letter that contains good news. He will regret not knowing the bad news. Fear drives him to keep his eyes closed. He can’t bear to let go of the idea that he may have inherited a lot or that the “dark” girl might have decided to be his love. This could be a warning letter to him that his parents might have died.
The speaker can’t yet fully embark on a relationship with “you” in this poem. This new relationship may bring you wonderful, sexual joy. He might have found the partner he wants to spend his entire life with. But he could also be disappointed in the relationship he has chosen. Pessimists believe that being in the initial phase is better than developing and then losing an intimate relationship. The seduction and romance of the possible is glamorous, according to the speaker.
The poem is not moving forward, but there is a noticeable shift in the first and second verses. The first is filled with shame and embarrassment for not being capable of reading the letter. The second stanza shows that the man can feel the bittersweetness and possibility of this letter. While he is eager to learn the meaning of the letter, he is also anxious about what it might reveal. The first part of the speech is the speaker’s. It contains embarrassment at his inexperience as well as a feeling that he is overwhelmed. This innocence gives him the illusion of the encounter in the second stanza. The poem’s last two lines pose an impossible question. That notion is complicated by the amount of anxiety associated with anticipating bad news. It is hard to express this volatile and impermanent state. Perhaps that is why Meredith uses the concept of the illiterate man to begin his description.
Meredith raises the age-old issue of ignorance being bliss in these two lines. Is there a better way to think? The outcome will determine the answer. If happiness is the ultimate goal, it is better to get there. However, if you are only looking for disappointment, it may be better to live in the unknown.
Gregerson’s piece is a good example of this. What is The Illiterate’s rhetoric doing? Gregerson believes that lyric poetry is meant to persuade its reader, but there is not an outright ambition. Instead, his intent is to ask us about hope and knowledge. Meredith suggests you can’t have both. According to Meredith, knowledge cannot be had in both a state of anticipation and na?vety. The illusion is gone and reality set in. Meredith keeps his reader from reading the actual contents of the letter as well as the final outcome of the speaker’s relationship with his love. Can they stay in this state of uncertainty forever? Meredith ends the poem without giving an answer and leaves the reader to wonder what the poem’s purpose is. This may be Meredith’s intention, to make us uncertain and question in a meta way. The meaning of the poem’s words loses and gains significance for us, just like the illiterate man. Although we question the meaning of the whole poem, the goal is that we even question it. The Illiterate, or lack thereof, can now be seen as not just a poem but as an Ars poetica poem.