Part 2 of a trilogy of articles in which Andrea T Judge discusses the history and evolution of lyric and epic poetry and what they mean to us today.
If someone told you that there is a word in the English language that means nothing, you would probably respond, “Big deal.” After all, there are several. But what if they told you that this one specific word meaning nothing exists in all spoken European languages, and in Ancient Greek and Latin too, and that it is identical in all of them for spelling, meaning and use – even, almost, for pronunciation? Does it still sound familiar? And what if they went on to tell you that this is the only word in the English language – or in any language – which is used almost exclusively in poetry, including non-lyric instances of poetry such as dramatic verse or the poetry books of the bible, or when another mode of writing tries to mimic poetic discourse (ancient historical texts or early novels, placing ‘poetic’ speeches in the mouths of their characters, or modern novels in deliberate linguistic satire)? Finally, what if they told you that the spelling for this universal ‘word for nothing’ is the simplest you can imagine – so incredibly simple, in fact, that it consists of only one letter?
Ladies and gentlemen, meet ‘O’ – the letter ‘O’, and the word ‘O’. The word, let us be clear about it, has a double meaning. On one hand, it is a mark of the vocative – it indicates that whatever name or object appearing next in the sentence is being called or addressed. “O wild west wind,” begins Shelley’s ‘Ode to the West Wind’. “O Goddess!”, opens Keats’ ‘Ode to Psyche’. The word originates from Ancient Greek, where the letter Omega (Ω, ω), pronounced like the long o in ‘broad,’ was used in much the same way, in both lyric poetry – Pindar, Pythian IV, line 59: ‘ωμακμρ υιε Πολυμναστου’, “O happy son of Polymnestos” – and dramatic – Aeschylus, Agamemnon, line 1577, ‘ω φεΥΥος ευφρον ημεραζ οικηφορου,’ “O fluent glimmering light of justice.” It was later picked up by the Latins for the same use (Quis deus, o Musae, tam saeva incendia Teucris / avertit?, “Which god, o Muses, from such raging fire saved the Greeks?” – Virgil in the Aeneid, IX, 77-78). From there it spread to all the modern European languages.
The second meaning of ‘O’ is the one that indicates nothing in the best sense of the phrase (though to some extent this is also true of its vocative form, at least inasmuch as it sets up the register of the sentence but indicates no specific object in and of itself). Its meaning is that of an exclamation of sudden and/or intense emotion, be it surprise, pain, joy, longing or what have you. Blake gives us an example in ‘The Little Black Boy’: “And I am black, but O! my soul is white.” This version of ‘O’ later evolved into ‘Oh’, presumably to distinguish it from the vocative use, and this new word became the one to be used in novels, journalism and correspondence – leaving the pristine ‘O’ alone for use in poetry, where (bizarrely) it nonetheless retained its double meaning. Now this second use of O truly means nothing in a way that no other word in language does, not even the word ‘nothing’. The meaning of ‘Oh’ is practically ‘I cannot speak’; “I am too surprised to emit anything but this inarticulate sound. I haven’t regained my conscience or had the time to formulate a proper sentence.” Or: “I am in too great a pain to speak. This cry of pain is all that can worm its way out of my mouth.” Or: “I am so deeply in love that I cannot speak it, yet I cannot stay silent either, so this sound will be my compromise.” Where ‘O(h)’ appears – or, for as long as it appears – language ends. It is a sign that signals the impossibility of utilizing signs or formulating meaning. It represents the crisis of language, and as such, it verily means nothing.
Ironic as it may sound that poetry, the most meaningful mode of language, should gain its most exclusive signifier in a word that means nothing, the mating is in reality quite sensible. Lyric poetry is normally based on an underlying dialectic of speaker and receptor – it is ‘an utterance that is overheard’, as John Stuart Mills defined it, or a case in which the poet ‘pretends to be talking to himself or to someone else’, in the words of Northrop Frye. This is the case regardless of whether the receptor is personified, as in Sappho’s Aphrodite or Petrarch’s Laura, or merely implied, by the echo of the reader who ‘overhears’. The vocative ‘O…’ projects an addressee and therefore creates a true lyric register. The exclamatory or emotional ‘O’ is an extension of this function, and this reveals the connection between two otherwise unrelated uses of the same ‘O’: to the extent that an internal monologue cannot make meaningless statements without ceasing to be either internal or a monologue, a void expression of emotion cannot subsist in such a speech, nor a sign that signals the absence of signs. More likely, such expressions are staging a call for attention of some kind. The emotional ‘O’ is the raw cry of pain, the bark of surprise, the peal of wonder, the wolf’s howl. Though it never says anything, it always signals something to some other. “O, I am so in love!” means “[Dear Sir/Lady], I am so in love!” Where there is an ‘O’, there is always the O/ther. (Of course, the argument can be extended to propose that the whole notion of an internal monologue is an oxymoron, as any ‘logos’ implies an Other, but that is a discussion for another day).
Let’s extend the original shibboleth. What if someone told you that there is a word which means the opposite of ‘O’, the opposite of nothing, a word which represents the other pole of the dialectic, the other side of the Other? What if this word, too, were spelt by means of a single letter? It is not too hard to find: here comes ‘I’. The universality of this one is not quite the same – the letter remains in the German ‘Ich’ or the Italian ‘Io’, but it is substituted with other, similarly elongated vertical letters in languages such as French (‘Je’) or Spanish (‘Yo’). On the other hand, the word is more polyvalent in its signification – the same pronunciation, but with different spellings, can signify the eye, the pained expression ‘Ay’ (similar to ‘O!’), and ‘Aye’, which is another form of that fascinating syllable that is ‘yes’.
The ‘I’ represents the opposite of the ‘O’ for fairly obvious reasons. While the ‘O’ projects another person, the ‘I’ indicates the self, subject and origin of speech. ‘I’ cannot be spoken of someone else, while ‘O’ cannot be said without someone else. Yet the opposition runs deeper than the semantic. We mentioned that the lyric genre is based on a dialectic of speaker and receptor, but we cannot help agreeing that such an identification, while useful to great extents, is not enough to exhaust all poetry, and that there are some poems which popular consensus would call ‘lyric’ or ‘lyrical’ yet are not directly referable (much less directly addressed) to a specific Other – including a deal of the lyric poetry belonging to the ancients and important hermetic traditions such as the Japanese haikus. Interestingly, though most of these poems do not respond to the dialectic of the self and the other, they do respond to the values represented by ‘I’ and ‘O’. These two words/letters are more primal than the dichotomy of the self and the other – the latter is an expression of the former, not the other way round.
The ‘I’ and ‘O’, as graphic shapes, are the most elementary signs for the most powerful opposition in the realm of signification, and it is incredible how many symbols, themes, and effects in poetry can be linked – or even directly translated – into this couple. Nietzsche identified this opposition in his famous antithesis of Apollonian versus Dionysian principles, claiming that the development of all arts was inextricably bound up with their duality. Upon the foundations of ‘I’ and ‘O’ rest, for instance, the oppositions of light and dark, man and woman, truth and dream, order and chaos, self and other, difference and sameness, good and evil, law and anarchy, reason and emotion, life and death, civilization and barbarism, and an infinity of aesthetic conflicts. In its original form, the Greek omega was written by means of a simple circle (the looping symbol ‘ω’ evolved later as a conjunction of two small Os, to distinguish it from the letter omicron). The reasons why such a shape was chosen as the graphic sign for this vowel are, of course, impossible to investigate – it is amusing to speculate that it may be because the lips need to form a circle to pronounce the O, if only because Aristotle discussed the matter in the Poetics – but the choice is highly significant.
The circle is a shape which is self-similar from whichever position you look at it. It does not end and does not begin at any given point, it has no top or bottom or sides, no front nor back. It is perfect and, of course, haunting. The Greeks picked up the Babylonian belief that stars were arranged in a circle which determined your destiny in life (the zodiac, from zoe and dias, ‘life’ and ‘circle’), Dante chose three circles, one within the other, to represent God, and Shakespeare coined the expression “The wheel is come full circle” (Lear, V, iii, 175) to mean moral and temporal completeness. Incidentally, representations of history are usually either cyclical, where history is shown as a wheel, or teleological, in which it is shown as a straight line. The straight line, when it is vertical, becomes the ‘I’.
The geometric appearance of these two letters is extraordinarily illuminating, and it may just account for their (relative) universality. This dialectic also nourishes two fundamental drives which, once translated in linguistic expression, do much to determine whether a poem will be positive or negative in its outlook. The ‘I’ is at the heart of all questions of identity – the possibility of saying ‘I’ is itself, already, an aspiration. It implies distinguishing oneself from the rest. The straight line of the sun-ray and arrow were symbols for Apollo, the sun-god. A poem where the teleological focus is ‘I’ is a poem of light – the poem of a speaker who will be, will become, will mean. The act itself of becoming ‘I’ is an epic quest. It means becoming one, final, finite, complete, indivisible, true to the one-self, a force in opposition to all others. To become ‘the chosen one’ (a classical epic quest from the Gospels to The Matrix) could be represented, in Latin numerals, as becoming the chosen ‘I’ – or, in modern graphology, as the chosen 1. For the sign ‘I’ originally meant both the letter and the number, and we have retained the principle of representing 1 by means of a straight line. Indeed, the number 1 is the basic unit of individual identification – the heart of identity, we may provoke, for there can only be one. And I will always be the chosen one.
Since all numbers are composed of the basic building block ‘one’, all numbers are replicas of one, and there can be no other numbers than one (the original Roman numerals make this even more explicit – I, II, III…). The only alternative to one that is not a repetition is a non-number, and this, in mathematics, is represented by the number zero – that is to say, a circle. As stated, ‘O’ means nothing – even in the language of mathematics. To call by means of ‘O’ means to call for nothing – and in fact in the lyric, no-one replies (otherwise the genre is not lyric but dramatic). ‘O’ means death. It is the self-same, timeless, non-differentiated space where all tensions are reduced to nothing, the womb that came before birth, or the heavenly harmony on the grasses of Eden. The ‘I’ is where we want to go when we want to become; the ‘O’ is where we want to go when we want to stop being, to fade away, to dissolve, to sleep, to be undone. For these reasons, poems where the ‘O’ is predominant over the ‘I’ are usually more melancholy and nostalgic in tone, and these poems we commonly call ‘lyric’. The ‘O(ther)’ has dominion over the ‘I’, who no longer wants to be, and would rather escape this state of inagency by fading into death or into the other, who are, by this stage, the same thing (rest and/or bliss). Dionysus is the god of fading away from reason – Nietszche spoke of the ‘intoxication’ he causes as the god of wine, of madness and of cults of dance and ecstasy. Dionysus is associated to the silver circle of the moon, which gives him a symbolic connection to women, whom he was also inextricably related to, and to the circles. This value finds its opposite in the masculine Apollonian values. In psychoanalysis, the ‘I’ and the ‘O’ are the two geometric shapes symbolizing the phallus on one side and the vulva or womb on the other. The opposition of epic and lyric values, of heroic quests on one side and interiority and sensitivity on the other, plant their roots in an opposition which is historically related to that of the masculine and the feminine. Thus the poems of the light and of the dark, and of reason and passion, become intimately bound in their representation with tropes of gender – in ways which can be illuminating or discriminatory.
The duality of poems of the light and of the dark, or more simply epic and lyric poems, is the core dialectic which informs distinctions of poetic genre. The tradition of poems where the ‘I’ predominates constitutes the foundation for all verse on identity and ideology, from national to ethnical and cultural statements. Where the ‘O’ is dominant, we find the building blocks for centuries of love poetry and religious verse. Pride and humility are suggested by the two poles and become genres of their own. So powerful, perhaps even so inescapable, is this opposition, that Nietzsche had no doubt in calling Apollo and Dionysus the ancestry rather than the progeny of Olympus.
Andrea T Judge grew up in Rome and has studied literature extensively through courses in the UK and the Caribbean. He writes football journalism for the website Football Italiano and kept up a blog of rants and cultural criticism at The Rant Machine. He has recently set off adventuring.