Poetry

William Carlos Williams’s “Summer Song” and the pathetic fallacy


By Henry M. Seiden, PhD, ABPP

A night can be terrifying. But can it be said to be “cruel”? In what sense does a weeping willow weep? A dark night may hold unseen terrors, but it can’t have sadistic intentions. A willow is only a tree. Its branches may droop but it cannot have feelings.

The attribution of human feeling, experience or intent to inanimate things is, strictly speaking, a fallacy: the pathetic fallacy. It’s bad thinking, proceeding as it does from an implicit but incorrect premise. (Inanimate things don’t have minds.) And it’s a tactic contemporary poets generally try to avoid because it’s seen as a cheap short cut to creating meaning, usually sentimental meaning. Although older poets, it must be said, the Romantics and Shakespeare among them, didn’t seem to mind it so much.

And modern poets do sometimes play to great effect with pathetic fallacy. Here’s a lovely example from William Carlos Williams:

In “Summer Song” Williams seems almost to believe, as do we, that the moon is smiling ironically; that daybreak or no, this self-involved moon is going its own way. To be sure, the moon’s smile is detached and indifferent. The poet senses and we do too that something is missing. The “faintly” would seem to signal that. Williams saves things with his last lines; this is his fantasy. We get it: He’s the wanderer. (Although a wanderer in a shirt and tie! And in a fixed orbit. I guess that’s the way doctors wander, or used to wander. On his day job, Williams, one of the great modern American poets, was a GP in New Jersey.)

In the history of the human race, awareness of the pathetic fallacy is a late arrival—the term coined by the critic John Ruskin in 1856. Ancient myth and primitive thought have always seen an animating presence in things: a god in the wind, a spirit in a rock, a smile on the face of the moon.

And we moderns live in a world where things do seem to speak to us—a speaking that is part of the richness of experience. It would be a flat world indeed if we didn’t feel that the sun on a mild summer morning was shining on us and for us, and with benevolent intent. We don’t want to think the sun only “shines” because there is an intense chemical fire burning out there, our part of the globe is for the moment rotated conveniently and inclined towards the fire, and there is no water vapor in the way. (And we don’t like thinking of the universe absent a God who intends it and manages it. Although I’ll leave that to theologians to argue.)

And as for the universal experience of night and day, here’s Emily Dickinson, making high art out of a pathetic fallacy:

Startled grass? In what sense can she mean that? Surely this is a mixed metaphor and fallacious. And yet, it works—the poet expressing in a surprising visual image our own anxious and startled “presentiment,” our sense of coming darkness—and of course of the coming darkness that is death.

Interestingly, as psychologists we’ve been trained to look for M responses in our (modern) subjects. We see the perceiving of human movement or human attitude in inanimate ink blots as signaling a highly developed inner life. Highly developed so long as the subject knows the image could be moving but isn’t really—the way we know that in Williams’s poem the indifferent moon isn’t really wandering.

So, the “wanderer” moon, the “startled” grass: Is this primitive thought or mental achievement?

It’s both of course. As psychoanalysts we know that what we see is inevitably the projection of our own inner life. And we know that in this process there’s something to be cautious about. But we also know that there’s something of value here. Yes, the physical world we inhabit is nothing but animal, vegetable and mostly mineral. But we know that our way of reading all that is what gives us our humanity. Primitive or modern, it’s always been our way of reading ourselves.

Summer Song

Wanderer moon
smiling a
faintly ironical smile
at this
brilliant, dew-moistened
summer morning,–
a detached
sleepily indifferent
smile, a
wanderer’s smile,–
if I should
buy a shirt
your color and
put on a necktie
sky-blue
where would they carry me?

- William Carlos Williams 

Presentiment

Presentiment – is that long Shadow – on the Lawn
Indicative that Suns go down –
The notice to the startled Grass
That Darkness – is about to pass –

- Emily Dickinson

References

“Summer Song” is in The Collected Poems of William Carlos Williams, New Directions, NY, (1986, paper 1991). Reprinted by permission of the publisher.

Emily Dickinson wrote some 800 poems in her lifetime, many very short and mostly without title. “Presentiment…” is number 487 in her catalogue