Texas Studies in Literature and Language 47.2 (2005) 101-119
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Subjects and Objects in Lycidas
At least since Coleridge, critics have understood the elegiac mode as a central lyric genre for calling forth poetic subjectivity. Coleridge writes that "elegy is the form of poetry natural to the reflective mind. . . . It must treat of no subject for itself; but always and exclusively with reference to the poet himself."1 Accordingly, recent criticism of Lycidas (so often the paradigmatic example of elegy) tends to focus on the individual subjective voice, whether it reads the poem as exemplifying, calling into question, struggling against, or failing to pull off its emergence.2 These concerns with individualist subjectivity inform the three major clusters of modern writing about Lycidas. Psychologically oriented analyses highlight the subject's psychic responses to loss; the ego has to be "freed" from its investments in the psychic "objects" of mourning in order to move on.3 Historically oriented readings of the poem (including literary-historical ones) look for ways that the poem's individual voice can transcend such limitations as censorship, occasional constraint, or poetic inexperiencein order to autonomously speak truth.4 Generically and vocationallyoriented readings also focus on the individual poetic voice's telicnegotiations with pastoral convention, with the Miltonic voice either succeeding or failing in its bid to "emerge and gain strength in the course of the poem."5
Lycidas certainly calls attention to the activity of the elegizing subject, perhaps most obviously by way of the final framing move of the outer narrator. But the Coleridgean model of a transcendentally self-reflective subject cannot account very well for the poetic activity Lycidas foregrounds. I shall argue that Lycidas offers two distinct models of poetic subjectivity. One model does indeed advance the kind of emergent, autonomously human voice taken up in previous critical discussions. The other model, however, is entangled with objects—with inanimate, nonhuman "things"—to such an extent that objects actually seem to co-sponsor the poetic utterance. Lycidas presents itself, after all, as a co-production of the assertive subject come to seize unripe vegetation ("I com to pluck your berries harsh and crude" ) and of the berries and leaves themselves, which the speaker—"compelled" to harvest (7)— [End Page 101] requires in order to produce his song.6 Interjecting the question of objects into the received notion of elegy as a profoundly subjective genre offers ways to think about several traditional cruxes in Lycidas that remain tellingly resistant to subject-centered readings. These include the discontinuity among voices in the poem, the sequence of false endings, and the asymmetrical frame that closes the narrative.
I would not claim that Lycidas is anomalous in intermingling subjects and objects. Rather, the conventions of pastoral lyric themselves might be understood to create paradigms of voice and agency that the dominant, Coleridgean model cannot accommodate. In fact, the subjective orientation of the ways we usually read the genre misses a characteristic pastoral ambiguity in the constitution of subjects and objects. In contrast to the tendency in Renaissance studies to "proceed . . . as if it were both possible and desirable for subjects to cut themselves off from objects," pastoral demands analytic models that attend to the genre's characteristic exchanges between subject and object because pastoral itself speaks a flexible and mutual language of subjects and objects.7 Pastoral "objects" are partially produced by subjects (insofar as they are conventional, poetic, andrhetorically invested). Conversely, pastoral "subjects" thematize questions of their own agency by entering into a convention that predetermines many of their performative choices. "Subjective" critical models have taken this flexibility to signal that pastoral's objects are not really objects: that they merely figure, displace, or cathect subjectivity. To give both of Lycidas's models of agency their due, however, we need to imagine objects that can exercise agency without thereby collapsing into subjects.
Recent inquiries into alternative ways to think about subjects and objects have demonstrated the analytic usefulness of decentering the subject—of thinking...