Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Richard Strier reviews Deixis in the Early Modern English Lyric

Heather Dubrow. Deixis in the Early Modern English Lyric: Unsettling Spatial Anchors Like “Here,” “This, “Come.” New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015. 135 pp.

Review by Richard Strier

Heather Dubrow’s book on deictics in the early modern English lyric begins engagingly and energetically by quoting and discussing the first four words of John Donne’s well-known poem “The Flea”: “Marke but this flea.” The deictic, or pointing word, is indeed prominent here, and the reader is prepared for it by the opening command for attention. Dubrow raises the excellent question of the difference it makes that the pointing word is “this” rather than “that”—a proximal rather than a distal deictic, to use the helpful terms that she borrows from linguistics. She also raises some nice questions about the initial “marke” and the phrase “marke but” and about the second half of the line, which ends by repeating the proximal deictic, “and marke in this.” Alerting the reader to these words and how they function is clearly a worthwhile critical activity, since such words are often overlooked even in close readings and (as Dubrow says) “may at first glance seem inconsequential” (p. 121). The deployment of linguistics in the opening is pleasantly unselfconscious, since linguistics is clearly the realm (along with analytical philosophy) in which deictics are an established topic. Dubrow urges us to (so to speak) mark but deictics of place—here/there, this/that, and relatedly come/go—since she notes, quite plausibly, that deictics of person (especially the first-person singular) and of time have been widely considered in lyric studies and in literary studies more generally. She usefully calls attention to work by figures rarely mentioned in our field, such as Charles J. Fillmore (on deictic motion verbs) and William F. Hanks (on the rhetoric of spatial deictics).

Problems develop when Dubrow suggests that her book has a polemical rather than a purely analytical orientation. She wants—because of the “professional climate” of current literary studies—to place her study under the rubric of “poststructuralism” (p. 11). This accounts for the subtitle of her book, which claims not merely to study “spatial anchors” but to “unsettle” them. Against the “anchoring” function of spatial deictics, Dubrow wants to argue for “versions of unmooring”—”the finger that apparently points often wavers or trembles or misdirects” (p. 11). This leads her to downplay some facts that she knows (deictics do often function in “straightforward binaries,” p. 15), and also at times to make heavy weather of phrases or passages where the sailing actually seems pretty smooth. This occurs in the first reading she does in this mode, where she focuses on the spatial deictic at the beginning of the second stanza of George Herbert’s “Love (III)”: “A guest, I answer’d, worthy to be here” (quoted p. 11). Dubrow asks where “here” is (always a good question), and notes that it has been taken to be either at the Eucharistic feast or in the heaven which that feast prefigures. She does not consider that the deictic may refer to a state rather than a place (a state of grace), so she paraphrases the (human) speaker to be saying that “he is not yet ‘here,’“ when what this speaker is saying is that he is unworthy. He is already, so to speak, “there,” but is having trouble coming to terms with this. Dubrow also makes the “poststructuralist” suggestion that “here” might “in some sense [refer to] the poem itself” thereby showing it to share the “preoccupation with representation” revealed by “so many poststructuralist analyses” (p. 11) Dubrow’s “in some sense” registers some discomfort with this suggestion, and “so many poststructuralist analyses” may register some weariness with it, though she is so fond of this reading that she repeats it virtually verbatim later (on p. 97).

Other polemics in the book are against talk of egocentricity and of immediacy in the lyric. Dubrow is unhappy with these terms, yet at the end of the first chapter concedes that “egocentricity needs not to be simply rejected” (p. 16), and in the final chapter concedes, with a “To be sure,” that “lyric deixis sometimes establishes or intensifies immediacy” (p. 116). The desire to adjust to the “professional climate” of current literary studies leads Dubrow to assert connections to space theory—part of the second chapter is devoted to an account of an installation at the Guggenheim—and to queer theory (ambiguous spatial deictics are seen as “unsettling” and thereby “queer,” pp. 12–13). I am not sure that this effort to establish “the compatibility of the study of lyric deixis with methods and approaches currently popular in many English Departments” was necessary or—though admittedly ingenious—wholly convincing (p. 13). Dubrow could have gone about her endeavor without such. Her book can be seen as having at once too much and too little faith in itself.

Dubrow has been, for decades now, one of our most devoted and attentive readers of early modern English poetry. Yet this book’s focus on deictics did not always seem—as it did in relation to “The Flea”—to get at salient issues in the chosen texts; and when the focus did seem productive, it was sometimes not maintained. With regard to Spenser’s “Epithalamion,” I do not think that what we are given is one of the “boldly radical interpretations” that the book proclaims (p. 123); “the finger that apparently points” does indeed waver. Dubrow properly focuses on the proximal deictic (“here”) in the stanza where Spenser calls upon mountain naiads, who keep wolves away from deer, to aid in dressing his bride. The issue of sacred space is an important one in the poem, but instead of pursuing it, Dubrow insists that “surely” the poem associates wolves with the anti-English Irish (46)—an adverbial formulation that almost always indicates, to my mind, that Dubrow is making an overstatement (for other such occurrences, see pp. 34, 50, 53, 64, 103, and 104; the exception is on 99, which corrects an overstatement by others). The postulated political and topical reference gives the reading of Spenser’s poem a familiar and not especially bold new historicist flavor, but does not advance the specific formalist agenda of the book.

The reading of Mary Wroth’s “Song 1” highlights some turns that are already strongly marked in the poem, and insists on an ambiguity that may or may not be there. I am not sure, in any case, that the poem—though highly polished—stands up to the analysis that it is given. Donne’s “Hymne to God my God, in my Sicknesse” is unquestionably a great poem, but Dubrow’s reading imports uncertainty into the opening stanza where the poem actually is certain (“Since I am coming”); does not deal with the real difficulty in this stanza (the relation between “thinking” now on earth and “doing” later in heaven); and does not come seriously to terms with the surprising anti-climax of the ending (p. 101). The best readings in the book are of Shakespeare sonnets (whose collection in chapter 3 breaks the book’s format of focusing on one focal poem in each chapter). Dubrow notes, quite strikingly, that the deictic “this” recurs in the couplets of 31 of the 154 sonnets (p. 61). Dubrow is good on “that sweet thief” in sonnet 35, and raises the excellent question of why Shakespeare speaks of “those” rather than “these” tears in sonnet 34. Sonnet 74 really does provide a rich locus for the study of spatial deictics and reflexivity in the lyric. “That” in line 1 is puzzling enough (“that fell arrest”), but “this” in line 3 (“this line”) is even more so, though perhaps clarified by the repetition of the proximal in line 5 (“When thou reviewest this”). The couplet is truly (to sound like an Elizabethan) a dazzling display of deictics, with a relative pronoun masquerading as one—“The worth of that, is that which it contains, / And that is this, and this with thee remains” (quoted p. 70)—yet Dubrow has surprisingly little to say about it. One would think that she would have much of interest to say about a line beginning “And that is this,” where the distal claims to be identical to the proximal, but Dubrow devotes only a single phrase to it, speaking of “the hint of fallacious predication,” p. 70). This is intriguing, but only indeed a hint.

There is no reason why a small book cannot make great claims and have a great impact—one can think of many such, from Aristotle’s Poetics to Harry Frankfurt’s On Bullshit (2005)—but in this case, the book’s aspirations often interfere with what it accomplishes. I wish that Dubrow had unselfconsciously written the book that her main title announces. She need not have “made it new.” In a gesture of retraction, she renounces her “earlier argument that lyric enacts a dialogue between immediacy and distance” (p. 116). I think Dubrow could have stuck with Dubrow.