The Semantics of Silence in the Poetry of Wallace Stevens

Maller, Gershon David (2014). The Semantics of Silence in the Poetry of Wallace Stevens PhD Thesis, School of English Media Studies and Art History, The University of Queensland.

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Author Maller, Gershon David
Thesis Title The Semantics of Silence in the Poetry of Wallace Stevens
School, Centre or Institute School of English Media Studies and Art History
Institution The University of Queensland
Publication date 2014
Thesis type PhD Thesis
Supervisor Bronwyn Lea
Peter Holbrook
Total pages 231
Language eng
Subjects 2005 Literary Studies
Abstract/Summary It is commonplace to observe that often what is not said in a poem is more important than what is. It is less common to explain how silence contributes to the creation of literal and figurative meaning in a poem. This thesis examines the philosophical significance of silence in the poetry of the high-modernist, American poet Wallace Stevens (1879–1955). I argue that four reasons motivate a reading of Stevens that foregrounds the eloquence and significance of his poetic silences. First, as a modernist driven by a philosophical commitment to Idealism, Stevens silences the representational function of language to express rather than assert meaning because reality is ineffable. Second, especially in the mature and late work, Stevens’ quest is to capture a moment of consciousness in language, which can only be shown by an absence of speech. Third, Stevens silencing of the denotative function of speech makes apparent the vast resources of potential meaning latent in the English language. Finally, when read in the context of contemporary philosophy, Stevens’ silences radically alter our understanding of both the limits of thought and what can be expressed by language. I argue that although modernist poets are characteristically more concerned with language as a mode of representation rather than the subject their language represents, Stevens is unique in that his abstract poetry is explicitly driven by classical epistemological concerns whose relevance remains. Drawing on linguistics and the “structuralist” theorist Gérard Genette, I develop a semantics of silence that demonstrates how silence, in both the presence and absence of speech, contributes to and resists the creation of literal and figurative meaning in the subject-matter and form of a poem. I employ this semantics to show how and why Stevens silenced the representational function of language in his early, mature and late poetry. This thesis offers the first comprehensive study of Stevens and silence; its methodology is adaptable to any critical enquiry concerned with the contribution of silence to literary meaning.
Keyword Semantics
Wallace Stevens
American Literature

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Created: Mon, 21 Apr 2014, 11:46:24 EST by Mr Gershon Maller on behalf of Scholarly Communication and Digitisation Service