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At the Brink of Infinity

Poetic Humility in Boundless American Space

James E. von der Heydt

Publication Year: 2008

From popular culture to politics to classic novels, quintessentially American texts take their inspiration from the idea of infinity. In the extraordinary literary century inaugurated by Ralph Waldo Emerson, the lyric too seemed to encounter possibilities as limitless as the U.S. imagination. This raises the question: What happens when boundlessness is more than just a figure of speech? Exploring new horizons is one thing, but actually looking at the horizon itself is something altogether different. In this carefully crafted analysis, James von der Heydt shines a new light on the lyric craft of Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, Elizabeth Bishop, and James Merrill and considers how their seascape-vision redefines poetry's purpose.

Emerson famously freed U.S. literature from its past and opened it up to vastness; in the following century, a succession of brilliant, rigorous poets took the philosophical challenges of such freedom all too seriously. Facing the unmarked horizon, Emersonian poets capture—and are captured by—a stark, astringent version of human beauty. Their uncompromising visions of limitlessness reclaim infinity's proper legacy—and give American poetry its edge. Von der Heydt's book recovers the mystery of their world.

Published by: University of Iowa Press


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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-xvi

If writing can be practical without being pragmatic, the most extreme instances of Emersonian poetic sight are the best places to find out how. What kind of writing can showcase the capacities of the senses, without representing any action ? Henry David Thoreau tries his hand at answering this question, in an especially Emersonian mood: no pragmatic reader is ready for the challenge that results. ...

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pp. xvii-xx

The scholarship underlying this book was supported materially by Harvard University and by Fellowships in the Humanities from the Mellon Foundation (1996) and the Whiting Foundation (2002). ...

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1. The Beachcomber’s Horizon

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pp. 1-22

Before Emerson’s writings were ever about power, they were about knowledge. His ethics have been deplored equally for excessive idealism and for excessive pragmatism: his continued importance to readers results instead from the bold and jagged contours of his philosophy. No call to action stirs the reader of Emerson in the way his alterations of perspective do. ...

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2. An Everywhere of Silver

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pp. 23-48

Emersonian philosophy often captures the attention of literary criticism because it is, secretly, all about words. The operation of Emerson’s sentences creates a drama more compelling than anything he describes outside the library. One of the highest compliments he seems able to pay to sensory engagement in the outdoor world is to call it literary: ...

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3. Privacies of Storm

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pp. 49-74

Emerson set out to express the unity and integrity of the world, yet his essays include some of the most fragmented prose of the nineteenth century. That fragmentation is not simply a qualification of his famous bigness; it is essential to it. “The essence of rhetoric in the hands of the orator or the poet,” he wrote, “[is] to detach and to magnify by detaching” (“Art” II.211). ...

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4. Dickinson Outdoors

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pp. 75-106

The figure of the house and the figure of the ocean each suggest the importance of a tight relation between smallness and largeness in the Emersonian poetics of infinity. In this lyric tradition, inside and outside space involve each other intimately, despite being registered as incommensurable. ...

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5. Frost and the Unmoving World

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pp. 107-136

Communication between people functions smoothly in the poetry of Robert Frost, because such interactions are insulated from his most pressing artistic uncertainties and longings. In writing, the mind comes up against nature’s unyielding stability and coldness — but when relationships are at issue, there are no limits on what language can accomplish. ...

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6. Bishop’s Weighted Eye

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pp. 137-170

Seasonality is the conventional metaphor for nature poetry’s representational challenge: to make the outdoor world into art, typically, one must defy the deathliness of winter. Whether set in the ripening of spring or the ripeness of summer, nature poems are often infused with an urgency that seems to result from the implacable workings of time. ...

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7. Merrill’s Expansiveness

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pp. 171-192

Poetry of knowledge is often a solitary endeavor. For the Emersonian poet, the detachment of the poem’s object, which “sits for its portrait”1 as the mind finds the forms to represent it, has tended to coincide with detachment of the poetic speaker from society. Reproachful of conversational forms, the epistemological poet often stands apart; ...

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pp. 193-210

All the value of an approach to literature can be found in its interpretive outcomes: the foregoing chapters must therefore justify themselves. Even so, I should acknowledge the philosophical framework undergirding the present analysis — not to enhance the argument’s persuasiveness, or to paper over its idiosyncrasies, but just to situate such idiosyncrasies on their proper foundation. ...


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pp. 211-228

Works Consulted

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pp. 229-236


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pp. 237-242

E-ISBN-13: 9781587297731
E-ISBN-10: 1587297736
Print-ISBN-13: 9781587296284
Print-ISBN-10: 1587296284

Page Count: 262
Publication Year: 2008

Edition: First edition

OCLC Number: 297118189
MUSE Marc Record: Download for At the Brink of Infinity

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Subject Headings

  • Infinite in literature.
  • Space and time in literature.
  • Vision in literature.
  • American poetry -- History and criticism.
  • Dickinson, Emily, -- 1830-1886 -- Criticism and interpretation.
  • Merrill, James Ingram -- Criticism and interpretation.
  • Frost, Robert, -- 1874-1963 -- Criticism and interpretation
  • Bishop, Elizabeth, -- 1911-1979 -- Criticism and interpretation.
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