Refusing the Sweet Surrender: Margaret Avison's "Dispersed Titles"

by J.M. Zezulka

     For Margaret Avison, a poem is a vehicle of discovery, an imaginative "jailbreak / And recreation" which can lead to "that other kind of lighting up / That shows the terrain comprehended." Before this can happen, however, the reader must grapple with shifts in perspective, close verbal textures, and an eclecticism in thought that has few parallels in the poetry of the last generation.

     The very density of her poems, individually, seems to encourage a thematic approach to them, and Avison herself seems to discourage the attempt to find the 'meaning' of her poems, just as she resists all fixities, preferring instead that the poem should lead to private illumination of the sort described in "Voluptuaries and Others." Thematic criticism has the advantage of pointing to general trends of thought in her poetry without placing individual poems into critical cyanide jars, but against this the critic / reader must balance the possibility that the poem will remain an "Adam's lexicon locked in the mind." In "The Valiant Vacationist," Avison suggests that the problem of meaning is one that she also shares:

Myself, I find it difficult
and so far have been unsuccessful
in finding anyone
Even to interpret for me to myself.
When I have mastered it, I'll let you know.

In the meantime, one is often left to wonder, like George Herbert about the metaphysical conceit, what lies below the surface:

Must all be veiled, while he that reads, divines
Catching the sense at two removes?

     In the discussion which follows, I attempt to remove at least some of the veils from "Dispersed Titles," one of the most allusive and elusive poems in Avison's canon. As far as possible I leave aside "the whole terrain" of Avison's work, but with the hope that by casting some illumination on this poem, the larger terrain may be more easily comprehended. It is hoped that "the speculation is not a concession / To limited imaginations."

     In an early poem, "Neverness: Or, The One Ship Beached On One Far Distant Shore," Margaret Avison traces the modern world's crisis of belief to early seventeenth-century science, personified in the figure of Leeuwenhoek, the Dutch naturalist and maker of microscopes. For Avison, the Dutchman's microscope is an image of man's technology, a "magic window" which opens into previously undiscovered recesses of the natural world. From the vantage point of the Second World War, where mankind sprawls "abandoned into disbelief. . .And [dreams] that history is done," the poet contemplates the irony that, while the microscope seems to have enlarged man's vision, it has, I in fact, aided in narrowing man's vision to the confines of empirical science: "The tissue of our metaphysic cells / No magic window yet has dared reveal." The poem is a search for the ground of belief, and not unnaturally it leads to an investigation into the possible historical sources of unbelief, among which the naturalistic focus of scientific humanism looms large.

     Scientific humanism and its consequences is also the theme of "Dispersed Titles," in which the modern conquest of space is traced to the discoveries of Tycho Brahe, the sixteenth-century Danish astronomer and cosmologist. Like Leeuwenhoek, Brahe extended man's ability to study the physical universe but his discoveries, like Leeuwenhoek's discovery of the one-celled plant, helped to displace man from the centre of concern. Imaginative flight and spiritual vision are replaced by air travel and an empirical approach to reality, with the result that a sacred view of life becomes increasingly difficult, indeed, seems "lost, like the committing of sins."1

     The first of the poem's seven sections links the conquest of space, ''[Flight],'' to the astronomy of Tycho Brahe "through the bleak hieroglyphs / of chart and table." (The metaphorical significance of "Flight," and later "Roots," is emphasized by the square brackets, ordinarily used to designate substituted words in an existing text.) Man's ability to rise above the earth, to extend his dominion over it to include the air as well, is symbolized by the aviator's navigational charts. The relative ease with which contemporary man controls his environment is imaged in the "winnowed navigators / who stroke the sable air, / earth's static-electric fur," with as little effort as a physics teacher demonstrating the principle of static electricity by rubbing a glass rod with a piece of fur. The image is generative, and with the addition of another line, "who ride it, bucked or level," becomes a new image. Aviators become riders astride a huge black beast, which is the earth with its cover of night. But, just as the previous image dissolved and reformed, so now the vaguely apocalyptic image of the earth-beast dissolves, giving way to less fanciful reflections of man's control of his environment. Although the airplane appears to be "denatured nature, subject / to laws self-corrugated," it is connected to the natural world, composed of "minerals gauged and fabricated /out of it."

     The phenomenon of flight, in other words is the product of a technological process, and as the poet observes the "bleak hieroglyphs" on the navigator's charts, her mind ranges back in time to the beginnings of that process, and the charts become Tycho Brahe's astronomical charts. The translation from navigator's charts to those of the astronomer is effected through "the hearing of the eye," a trope which combines seeing the charts with an imaginative perception by which the poet can hear "the bellrung hours of Tycho Brahe." This last image is also both visual and aural; visually, the "bellrung hours" suggest the face of a clock, possibly that of the astronomical clock in the Old Town Hall in Prague, the scene of Brahe's death in 1601.2  The image also suggests the clockwork cosmology which resulted from Brahe's attempt to reconcile Copernicus with Ptolemy, and which schematically resembles Prague's Great Clock to a startling degree. As an aural image, the "bellrung hours" remind us of the centrality of the church in Brahe's world, and in the context of Brahe's revolutionary impact on astronomy, their tolling signalizes an end to the world view which Brahe had inherited.

     In the second section of the poem, the poet ruefully contemplates the world order displaced by Brahe's disclosures. The connection between the sixteenth and twentieth centuries is made explicit in the section's dispersed title; "[Flight]," or modern technology, has its origins, "[Has Roots]," in the science of Brahe's world, but there the similarity ends. Through a complex series of allusions to the Elizabethan stage and to Shakespeare's plays in particular, Avison evokes both the anthropocentric world view which Brahe's astronomy helped to displace and Brahe's imagined dilemma in confronting the implications of his discoveries. (In actuality Brahe probably suffered few misgivings of a philosophical nature; it has been recorded that on his death-bed he deliriously repeated Ne frustra vixisse videar? 'Will I not seem to have lived in vain?')3 Although Brahe was anti-Copernican in his views, his own observations of the nova of 1572 and the appearance of comets on five occasions between 1577 and 1596 contradicted the notions of fixed stars and the immutability of the heavens which the Renaissance had inherited from Aristotle and Ptolemy. In spite of himself, Brahe laid the foundations on which Johannes Kepler, Brahe's assistant in Prague, would firmly establish the Copernicus view, although Kepler's own belief in the mathematical and musical harmonies in creation testify to the lingering attractiveness of the Aristotlean-Ptolemaic view of the universe. Brahe thus becomes "Kepler's Orpheus," teaching him to hear the music of the spheres; in the view of the poet he is an ironic Orpheus, not at all comfortable with the musical scale he has discovered. Allusions to Hamlet, MacBeth and Much Ado About Nothing suggest the disquietude Brahe might have felt, while allusions to King Henry V and King John fill out our view of the Renaissance world order and Brahe's impact on it.

     References to "a Danish crown," "the snarling North Sea night," and "the straw and the bran" connect Brahe with Hamlet, who is compelled to "find a quarrel in a straw / When honour's at stake," while the infirmity of Brahe's purpose is evoked by the reference to the mad Ophelia's distracted "Sweet ladies, good night, good night." Like Hamlet, Brahe is emotionally committed to an older order but intellectually committed to a course of action which results in the extinction of that order. Brahe also has affinities to MacBeth, who is "cabin'd, cribb'd, / Confin'd, bound in / To saucy doubts and fears," and to Leonato, who will not philosophically "endure the toothache patiently."

     One of the controlling metaphors of the poem is the image of the world as a circle-stage with man at the centre, and in the second section of the poem the image is used to suggest the Ptolemaic cosmology, with earth, and mankind, at the centre of the universe. Copernican astronomy removed earth from its pivotal position in the cosmos, just as the effect of humanistic science in general was to remove man from the centre of attention.

     The effect of the Tychonic system on the anthropocentric cosmology of the Renaissance is conveyed by syntactically linking circle-stage and solar images drawn from King Henry V and King John respectively. The former play begins with a Prologue expressing the physical limitations of the stage in portraying the epic scope of events which constitute the play:

Can this cockpit hold
The vasty fields of France? or may we cram
Within this wooden O the very casques
That did affright the air at Agincourt?

In the context of "Dispersed Titles" the "wooden O" is not only the Elizabethan stage but the Elizabethan world, suddenly become too small and too constraining to contain the drama of Tycho Brahe and his successors. Even as Brahe contemplates the implications of his discoveries, he is "unfabling fields already," and paving the way for a world in which the glories of the Renaissance world are replaced by the reflected glory of "the Narcissus sun [who] lends clods a shining." These lines ironically call to mind King Philip's words in King John, anticipating the marriage of Blanche to Louis, the Dauphin:

To solemnize this day, the glorious sun
Stays in his course and plays the alchymist,
Turning with splendor of his precious eye
The meagre cloddy earth to glittering gold.

Although Brahe believed that the sun revolved around the earth, his observations contributed to the overthrow of this view and, in metaphysical terms, to the displacement of man from the centre of the cosmic stage. From the perspective of the poet, then, this day for Brahe would have been less a cause for celebration than a day to exclaim, as Constance exclaims to King Philip, "This day all things begun come to ill end, / Yea, faith itself to hollow falsehood change!"

     The second section of the poem concludes wistfully, lamenting not only the passing of the Elizabethan theatre and what it represented, but also the disappearance of an age in which man's position in the cosmos was somewhat more central, and perhaps more secure. Brahe, Kepler, Hamlet, MacBeth, "All somewhere, still, / though they seem lost away / from their wierd hollow under the solar architrave." The archaic spelling of "wierd," as well as the pun on "still," emphasize the metaphysical separation between the twentieth and the sixteenth centuries, the latter perceived as a now-deserted stage. This image ironically anticipates the poem's concluding image, in which man once more assumes his position at the centre of the stage, only to discover that the theatre is empty.

     The sense of loss implicit in the second section of the poem is made explicit in the title of the third section,"But Is Cut Off." While modern technology has its roots in Renaissance science, it is cut off from the Renaissance world as effectively as the airplane, which has its roots in the earth, is spatially separated from its source. A possible pun on "[Roots]", (routes), would also suggest the paradox of the modern myth of progress, for while the airplane has a direction which can be mapped on navigational charts, the direction of man's imaginative and spiritual flight is less easily discemable than it might have been in Brahe's world.

     In contrast to the almost narcissistic self-regard of the Renaissance, modern man's view of himself would seem extremely truncated, cut off. The incompleteness of the twentieth century's vision of man, and the consequent feeling of alienation at the individual level, impel the poet to question her connection with the Renaissance, an age which seems more rooted in faith: "Are they all only in / those other hieroglyphs / of the created, solitary brain?" Although the disparate impressions of the second section are inspired by the "bleak hieroglyphs / of chart and table," they are not, strictly speaking, contained in them, but have their source in "other hieroglyphs," those of the poet's mind as she contemplates the airplane, or is herself "borne here in a mantoy." The issue is not conclusively resolved, but by symbolically linking the airplane, "a ball / that chooses when to fall," to the comets observed by Brahe, the poet suggests that the connection may be in "a new respect for the extremes," a shared reverence for, or ignorance of, the outermost reaches of the physical universe.

     The world order of which the poet is a part "must bear its own / ultimates of heat and cold / nakedly," and refuses "the sweet surrender" by dominating nature rather than being dominated by it. Even "Old Mutabilitie has been / encompassed," not as in Spenser's Mutabilitie Cargoes where she is made subject to the governance of nature, but "wrought into / measures of climbing and elipse." Modern technology's capacity for measuring change and even predicting and controlling it creates the illusion of stability and even, perhaps, of permanence in the sublunary realm. In the old cosmology, stability is the unique property of the heavens; everything below is subject to change, to "cycles." Modern science, represented by "this little fierce fabrique," the airplane, "seals the defiant break / with cycles," providing a justification of sorts for Brahe, pictured in the second section as torn by self-doubt. Clearly, it is the poet's own self-doubt and for stability which lead to this rationalization "for old Tycho Brahe's sake." The stability and order suggested in the third section are illusory, however, as the fourth section demonstrates.

     As both Ernest Redekop and Daniel Doerksen have noted, the "dispersed titles" of this poem also constitute a poem which functions as a gloss of sorts on the whole, while the individual lines of the gloss function as guides to the sections for which they serve as titles. Like stage directions in a play, the "dispersed titles" serve to direct the movement of the succeeding sections and to introduce new thematic elements. And, just as stage directions, when taken all together, provide a skeletal outline of the movement of the play, so the "dispersed titles" constitute a trajectory of the poem, illuminating the reflective passages and providing the structure within which they operate. Thus, the title of the fourth section, "Except From All Its Selves," indicates that the section will deal with selves or manifestation of flight, the controlling metaphor of the poem. The gloss,

[Has Roots]
But Is Cut Off
Except Fom All Its Selves

seems to reiterate the idea propounded in the third section that "Something wrought by itself out of itself / must bear its own / ultimates of heat and cold." The notion of an entirely enclosed, self-referential system is questionable, however, and so the fourth section of the poem begins with a cautionary but gentle apostrophe to Tycho Brahe:

But soft! (O curly Tudor)  —
No pith of history will
be cratered in one skull.

With subtle propriety, especially when one considers the sidereal imagery of Romeo and Juliet, Brahe's commitment to astronomy is seen in terms of Romeo's ardour for Juliet. Both situations also culminate in a manner that could not have been foreseen. The "pith" of history is both its force and its essence; as essence, the "pith of history" is simply Old Mutabilitie's record; as force, it is Old Mutabilitie herself. Neither history's force nor its essence can be "cratered in one skull." Given the earlier Shakespearean allusion, the image of the skull may also suggest Hamlet's reflections on Alexander the Great and Caesar as he ponders the skull of Yorick, thus further emphasizing that history is change, and thus removing from the doubt-ridden Brahe both control over and culpability for the consequences of his disclosures.

     In contrast to the image of the devoted but doubt-stricken astronomer is the image of the modern technocrat, complacent in his assumed dominance over nature. Representative of modern technology is Buckminster Fuller, whose geodesic dome replaces the wooden O as a symbol of man's narcissis tic self-regard. But "no cramp of will" can really restrain or confine the forces of nature. Technology may be the twentieth century's god, but like the god in Spenser's Cantoes, it too is subject to, rather than dominant over, Nature. Natural forces, like "the oak that cracked a quilted tumulus / and rustled, all through childhood's / lacey candle-drip of winter," act gradually at times, but powerfully and surely. The geodisic dome, "the glassy / exultation of an articulate / stripped rock-and-ribs,'' is "an intellect / created into world," and seems to shut the natural world out. But, as the forces of history cannot be "cratered in one skull," so too the forces of nature cannot be confined within or shut out of the geodisic dome. The ultimate fragility of the glass dome, "wounded with whispers from a single oak-tree," points out the vulnerability of all technology in the face of natural forces. "Wounded" can also suggest taking offense at an affront, suggesting western civilization's increasing isolation from nature and increasing dependence on man-made environments.

     Modern technology has at least managed to isolate man from an awareness of natural forces, has contrived in many ways to make life close to nature seem old fashioned if not hopelessly primitive. As a result, much of the joy of living, the pleasure of beholding the wonders of God's creation is also lost, as foreign to modern western man as the "seaborde men" who discovered new sublunary worlds while Brahe was discovering new realms beyond the lunar sphere. Characteristically, Avison conveys this sense of lost worlds in language which evokes a number of images simultaneously:

The periwinkle eyes
of seaborde men
Too young for gladness
fade with their shanties.

At one level, this loss is suggested by the images of docks at sunset, where the sparkle in men's eyes (suggested by "periwinkle, both a blue flower and a sea-snail) fades as darkness descends on their shanties "in the pink shadowlengthening / barracks of evening." On another level, the "seaborde men" are "too young for gladness," born too late for real adventure, and their spirit fades just as sea shanties (chanties) have faded from modern dock-yards.

     The natural world of which sailors were once so much a part is now aim ply raw material for the maw of technology:

Lost, like the committing of sins,
crag-shapes are sediment,
chopped down, minced, poured to pave
the shelving
parade ground for pinioned grotesques

Implicit in the poet's evocation of a vanished world is the feeling that it somehow represented a more sacred view of life. But, just as the notion of sin has been displaced by modern psychology, the world of Brahe's "bellrung hours" has been replaced by a world of mechanical forms and mechanical men, "pinioned grotesques" imprisoned in the cog wheels of their own invention.

     This imprisonment is both physical and metaphysical, but it is not so absolute as to preclude other ways of approaching the world or the self. "The Earth Has Other Roots And Selves" which can be apprehended or at least intuited by those who awe conscious of the strictures of the industrialized world. Discovering or recovering other modes of perception and relatior takes on a semi-religious urgency in the fifth section of the poem, which begins with a paraphrase of the Gospel according to Matthew: "He that findeth his life shall lose it: and he that loseth his life for my sake shall find it." (Matt. 10:39):

For Tycho Brahe's sake I find myself,
but lose myself again for
so few are salvaged
in the sludge of the
ancestral singular.

The substitution of Brahe for Christ does not necessarily preclude the Christian solution, although it may suggest its inadequacy in dealing with the poet's own dilemma, which is partly to discover the grounds for belief in an age of science. Considering Brahe's role in the history of science, the lines state that salvation from the modern dilemma is not to be found in the conditions which occasioned it; focusing on Brahet's real or imagined doubts and fears has not been of much help to the poet, after all.

     From this point forward in the poem, Brahe's name will no longer be invoked; whatever his situation may have been, it can provide no answers for the poet. Nor is the answer to be found in "the sludge of the ancestral singular," the history of mankind after Adam; for the poet as for Brahe, history is a force; rarely, if ever, is it a chronicle containing answers for present difficulties. The poet's isolation is not only from Brahe or from Adam, it is from many of her contemporaries as well: "Even my brother / walks under waving plumes of strangeness." She may not share the assumptions of her "brother Buckminster," but she has been formed by the world view he represents, and this has isolated her from her other brothers, those of mankind who dwell in non-industrialized parts of the world. Her own experience has been informed and in large measure shaped by the technology of Europe and North America:

The northern centuries
funnel me, a chute of
steel and water stumbling,
and I forget
warm boards, old market awnings. . .

In the lines that follow, images of a Mediterranean, technically less advanced culture are used to suggest some of the world's "Other Roots And Selves" from which North American and European man has alienated himself, and, as Ernest Redekop has suggested, "recall the Western mind to its geographical and historical roots."4 The poet claims that she has forgotten these things, but clearly her forgetting is an inadvertent neglect, perhaps even a loss of consciousness of this world and the modes of perception it represents, rather than an inability to remember.

     A more serious aspect of Western society's somnambulistic disregard for the natural world becomes evident in the sixth section of the poem, in which the religious dimension previously hinted at becomes explicit. "The Nameless One" of the section's title is most certainly the Tetragrammaton, the ineffable name of God in Yahwistic tradition, ordinarily transliterated in English as Yahweh or Jehovah, but written in Hebrew without vowels. In the context of "Dispersed Titles," the reference to the Tetragrammaton suggests an absolute, an almost mystical faith against which the poet measures "the made-name / corrupted to man-magic, to fend off / the ice, the final fire of this / defiance."

     Orthodox religion, with its ceremonial and ritual invocations of the deity, is at best a form of magic to be employed against irrational forces; the poet implies that a more absolute commitment is necessary, although this requires a leap of faith which she cannot yet make. The declaration that "The Nameless One Dwells In His Tents" is ambiguous; at one level it suggests that the God of Israel is in His Tabernacle, ignored by an age which has broken its Covenant with Him; alternately, the lines also suggest that Yahweh refuses to reveal Himself to those, like the poet, who desire a sign. Whether the ambiguity is intentional or not, Yahweh remains outside of the rational, empirical mode of perception associated with the "Northern centuries," just as the "ginger root / in a stone jar" and the "floral forest" remain outside of its experience.

     Recalling to mind "The Nameless One" is not in itself sufficient for religious conversion, since He remains outside of the understanding of the poet. But she is granted a breakthrough in perception, a breakthrough which may constitute the grounds for belief because it does not depend upon rational, empirical knowledge:

Things I can't know I smell
as plainly as if invisible campfires
smoked: a hum of sightless suppers
on the irredescent shore
under the dunes. The wanderer's
sandals ship, and shift, cool sand.

The language in these lines appeals to all of the senses. Perception becomes a matter of intuition, and of olfactory, visual, aural, and tactile experience, as opposed to the cerebral perception that depends upon ''knowing.'' Significantly, the scene presented is a desert scene, biblical, Galilean in its evocation. If the poem were to conclude at this point, this image might constitute an epiphany of sorts, but the larger issues raised by the whole poem would remain unresolved. Furthermore, from the simple, declarative style of this passage, it is not at all clear that the poet has won through to a new way of perceiving; her breakthrough at this point may simply be a reassessment of modes of perception in which she has previously placed her faith, but has not until now connected with religious belief.

     In the final section of the poem, "And "Up" Is A Direction," the little comfort afforded in the previous section is dashed by what Daniel Doerksen, referring to another poem, calls a "timeless picture of man's existential self-confrontation."5  As in the poem's second section, the central image is that of the world as stage, but in this instance the image is presented without nostalgia. Modern man's technological exploitation of his environment seems to place him once more at centre stage, but without the self-assurance of the Elizabethan actor, perhaps too without the narcissism of the Renaissance world:

Because one paces (none now strut)
one faces sea and space and is
tempted to think: Proscenium!
We have revolted.

MacBeth's revolt, we recall, led him to the conclusion that "Life's but walking shadow, a poor player / That struts and frets his hour upon the stage, / And then is heard no more." Since Avison goes on to point out that "Only the stagestruck mutter still / to the night's empty galleries," we are almost impelled to MacBeth's further conclusion that life is "a tale / told by al idiot, full of sound and fury, / Signifying nothing." But, included among the stagestruck is clearly the poet herself; unlike those who have found "not even ghosts even in the echoing foyer," she recognises that while the theatre may be empty, it is possibly haunted.

     Along with her contemporaries, Avison fears that the heavens have become simply "the night's empty galleries;" that "Up" is just another direction in which one can travel. Nevertheless, in "the confused up-and-down" of twentieth-century living, she has been able to glimpse an inner direction, still hears the echoes of "the last true audition," and in her own way refuses "the sweet surrender."


  1. Margaret Avison, Winter Sun (Toronto, 1960), p. 3.[back]

  2. For an illustration of the Tychonic system, see Sir Robert S. Ball, Great Astronomers (New York, 1974), p. 56. For a picture of the Great Clock of the Old Town Hall Tower in Prague, see Gunter Meimner and Heinz Bronowski, Towers and Turrets of Europe (Leipzig, 1974), p. 99.[back]

  3. Herman Kesten, Copernicus and His World (New York, 1946), p. 344.[back]

  4. Margaret Avison (Toronto, 1970), p. 32.[back]

  5. "Search and Discovery," Canadian Literature, 60 (Spring, l974),   p. 11.[back]