Blindness and Insight: The Meaning of Form in F.S. Flint’s Malady, by Elton Uliana
Blindness and Insight: The Meaning of Form in F.S. Flint’s Malady
Frank Stuart Flint (London, 19 December 1885 – Berkshire, 28 February 1960)
Malady (F.S. Flint)
perhaps I have wakened;
this is a bed;
this is a room;
and there is light . . .
Have I performed
the dozen acts or so
that make me the man
The door opens,
and on the landing —
I can see nothing: the pain, the weariness!
Stairs, banisters, a handrail:
One step farther down or up,
But up is harder. Down!
Down to this white blur;
it gives before me.
I extend all ways:
I fit into the walls and they pull me.
Light! I know it is light.
Stillness, and then,
green, oh green, dazzling lightning!
And joy! this is my room;
there are my books, there the piano,
there the last bar I wrote,
there the last line,
and oh the sunlight!
A parrot screeches.
F.S. Flint’s Malady is the archetypical Imagist poem. The poem urges its readers to visualize objective images but Flint’s radical principles of clarity, cadence and exactness powerfully suggest a blinding, disorientating subjective condition. In the early twentieth century just the same kind of ontological anxiety, alongside an irreverent crisis in artistic representation took the form of Modernism. In this context, the pragmatic question of what kind of event is really happening in Malady is inseparable from Flint’s shifting contrast between objective binary oppositions, from the poet’s ‘unrhymed cadence’ technique and from the graphic image of the poem on the page. This study will analyze Malady to elucidate the assertion that the Imagist paradigm the poem represents is inextricably aligned with the shared aesthetics of Modernist narrative. I shall argue that Malady is a kind of phenomenology of language, one in which the meaning of the words in the poem is closely bound up with the image and the experience of them. In addition, I will suggest that the blindness of the speaker is a metaphor for the blindness of the modern human subject where dissolubility and fragmentation are part its aesthetic.
Malady signals a development in poetic perspective. If its true that the poem rejects verbal inventiveness, ‘nearly-exact’ or ‘decorative words’, it is also true that it tersely draws attention to this fact. It does so by continuously posting signifiers that refer unambiguously to material objects, making the poem strikingly visual and forcing the reader to ‘ideate’ such visions in the imagination: ‘this is a bed;/this is a room; and there is light…/Darkness!’, (lines 3-6). The poet depicts external objects in an astonishingly compacted manner and by repeatedly questioning their stability in relation to the speaker and to their binary oppositions (‘But up is harder. Down!’, line 19), the author engraves the subjective experience of this ‘man’ (who ‘is ill and cannot see’) at extraordinary length in the mind of the reader. This powerful imagist effect is enhanced with a combination of language precision, emphatic punctuation and sharp line breaks. The poem’s self-conscious sculpturedness not only allows for, but also imposes pause, silence and mental elaboration. In addition, the words are direct and emotionally blank, which fuelled by a circumspection of thought become a kind of emotional response in itself, increasing thereby the destabilizing, dizzying effect: ‘Stairs, banisters, a handrail:/ all indistinguishable.’ (lines 15-16). As a result, the speaker’s vertiginous perplexity becomes palpable and strikingly visible.
These formal innovations extend also to prosody. Like end-rhymes, regular metre is peculiar to most poetry which preceded Flint’s generation. These are precisely the features that Malady rejects. Instead, the images are compressed into short lines of distinctive syllabic count: ‘I move: / perhaps I have wakened; /this is a bed;/ this is a room;/ and there is light . . .’ (line 1-5). The iambic foot with which the second line begins echoes the metrical rhythm of the opening line and this pattern operates to mutually reinforce the mood of both lines. Perhaps the reader would be expecting after that some kind of regularity, something like a rising, bouncing iambic rhythm. But being undisputedly of a Modernist strand, the poem is not bound to regularity. Significantly, the pattern is broken in the third line where a sudden rhythmic modulation occurs. The stress falls from the second syllable (‘I move’ and ‘perhaps’) to the first syllable ‘this’, a strategy which in turn, is reproduced in the following line, thus generating another kind of regularity, one that will be equally displaced subsequently. By diverting the rhythm of the language from its anticipated course the poet arguably infuses the words with new content and function. Indeed, in my view, he invites the reader to participate in the composition by generating his or her own personal pauses, inflection and intonation. It becomes then plausible to suggest that these cumulative verbal effects endow the straightforward scenario depicted with dizzying emotional color. Notably, Flint’s poetic method is structured in Imagist concerns with expressing ‘new moods’ by figuring out new prosodic relations.
This new method has another nuance. With an insightful brushstroke Flint subjects the space described, a universally ordinary bedroom (in the sense that it could be anyone’s bedroom) to a powerful transformation. In replacing a few words (‘a’ bed, ‘a’ room – lines 3,4, by ‘my’ room, ‘my’ books – lines 30,31), the meaning radically changes and the space becomes distinguishably personal, the speaker’s own recognizable bedroom. This semantic shift is performed with a grammatical one: the substitution of the impersonal indefinite articles by definite personal ones. Indeed, this aesthetic denouement has the overpowering effect of changing the psychological landscape of the speaker from painful to peaceful.
There is an abiding paradox operating in the poem: this is the fact that Flint makes ubiquitous, forceful and artificial use of conventional punctuation and in making these typographical signs so promptly conspicuous, the poet highlights the very artifice that the Imagists wish to clear poetry from. With the exception of the third stanza, which is a four-line sentence with three enjambments, every other line of the poem is a strictly independent clause terminated by an emphatic punctuation mark (reticent only in line 5, ‘and there is light…’). For a critic like T.S. Eliot, speaking about poetry in general, such punctuation signs are ‘naïve, usually superfluous and overemphatic’. In truth, far from being a grammatical solecism, the incisive punctuation in Malady becomes a formal staple upon which the poetic image can be assembled by the reader. The special pathos in this is that intervening repeatedly on the poem’s phrasal movement and graphic shape, Flint allows the audience to experience the images at different lengths and intensity. Sometimes by stumbling towards points of arrival (‘But up is harder. Down!’, line 19), sometimes by moving away from points of departure ( ‘Me?’, line 22), the reader is able to emulate, to enact the experience of the speaker. According to Mercedes Romon-Alonso, these typographical incisions are trivial and highlight the critical fallacy on which Imagism has been built. In my view, if this showcase of ink marks betrays Imagism and places practice and theory in dialectic, it does so by sharply materializing a form which seeks simultaneously to contain and extend the speaker’s complex emotional drama on the page. In this way, Flint experiments with new poetic forms for contemporary concerns.
The closing movement of Malady starkly stages a defamiliarizing device. It explores, rather unexpectedly, an external image that is apparently unrelated to the speaker’s mood: ‘A parrot screeches.’ (line 35). Flint’s final line abruptly disrupts the poem’s semiotic situation and leaves the reader intrigued, perplexed and puzzled. Suzanne Clark has suggested that the sentence is embroidered into the piece as a kind of sophistry, linking more or less desultorily the sensations of the speaker with the squealing sound of the parrot. For the critic, the line is spurious and appears to be meaningful but it is actually vapid. In my view, far from being self-indulgently meaningless, the sudden appearance of the parrot imbues the poem with a redemptive quality. It restores beauty, brightness, hope and insight, if momentarily, to the life (or indeed death) of the individual speaking in the poem. Pushing the image to an extreme, it can be metaphorically understood as representing some kind optimism for the collapsing, shattered modern subjectivity. In one way, lurking on the surface of the poem is both the personally chaotic, dissolute interiority of the poet’s persona and the universally fractured state of modern sensibility. In another, the poem functions to foreground key concepts of Modernist aesthetics with affected awareness.
Malady typifies, rather magnificently, the modernist disbelief that traditional poetic conventions could capture the experience of the modern world. I have argued that the relationship between form and content in the poem is typically a modernist one. If Flint’s poetics is suffused with recurrent, sharp, clear-cut images of everyday life, it is also punctuated with the painstaking drama of human disintegration and meaninglessness, an inherent condition of modernity and one which the modernists have been profusely concerned with representing. For Flint, and for the modernists in general, literature is about complicating ideas of form so far that these ideas reflect the subjective apprehension of modern life.
Artridge, Derek, Poetic Rhythm (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002)
Clark, Suzanne, Sentimental Modernism (Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1999)
Copp, Michael (ed.), Imagist Dialogues: Letters between Aldington, Flint and Others
(Cambridge: The Lutterworth Press, 2009)
Davis, Alex. (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Modernist Poetry (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007)
Herman, Theo, The Structure of Modernist Poetry (London: Croom Helm, 1982)
Hughes, Glenn (ed.), Imagist Anthology (London: Chatto & Windus,1930)
Iser, Wolfgang, The Act of Reading: a Theory of Aesthetic Response (Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 1980)
Jones, Peter, Imagist Poetry (ed.) (London: Penguin, 2001)
Kolokotroni, Vassiliki (ed.) Modernism: An Anthology of Sources and Documents (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1998)
Levenson, Michael H., A Genealogy of Modernism: A Study of English Literary Doctrine 1908-1922 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986)
Romon-Alonso, Mercedes, H.D. Sublimity and Beauty in Her Early Work (1912-1925), Durham University, 1999, [http://etheses.dur.ac.uk]
 See ‘Imagism: Preface to some Imagist Poets’ in Modernism: An Anthology of Sources and Documents, ed. by Vassiliki Kolokotroni, Jane Goldman, and Olga Taxidou (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1998), p. 268-269.
 Kolokotroni (1998), p.268.
 Kolokotroni (1998), p. 269.
 Wolfgang Iser, The Act of Reading: a Theory of Aesthetic Response (Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 1980), p. 136-137.
 In a letter to the editor of The Nation Flint explains, after being called ‘Prose-impressionist’ and accused of confusing ‘white blur’ with significance by one of the periodical critics, that ‘the man is ill and cannot see; and there is no impressionism therefore, but exact rendering.’
This is also an evidence that the speaker in the poem is a male figure. See Michael Copp (ed.), Imagist Dialogues: Letters between Aldington, Flint and Others (Cambridge: The Lutterworth Press, 2009), p. 96.
 Kolokotroni (1998), p. 269.
 Kolokotroni (1998), p. 269.
 Mercedes Romon-Alonso, H.D. Sublimity and Beauty in Her Early Work (1912-1925), Durham University eTheses, 1999, [http://etheses.dur.ac.uk/4691/1/4691_2160.PDF?UkUDh:CyT], assessed 9 Jan 2015.
 Suzanne Clark, Sentimental Modernism (Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1999), p.132.
 Michael H. Levenson, A Genealogy of Modernism: A Study of English Literary Doctrine 1908-1922 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), p.5.
Um texto de Elton Uliana, brasileiro residente em Londres, bacharel em Literatura Inglesa pela Universidade Birkbeck College, University of London.