Reading and Writing Outside Thebes: In Praise of Syntax by Kimberly Johnson

Reading and Writing Outside Thebes: In Praise of Syntax by Kimberly Johnson
December 30, 2019 Johnson Kimberly

Reading and Writing Outside Thebes: In Praise of Syntax by Kimberly Johnson


In 1939, at the queasy outset of the second World War, W. B. Yeats’s last published works appeared  in The Atlantic, a suite of poems that included “The Circus Animals’ Desertion,” and “Politics.”  The last of these may seem a trifling little amuse bouche of a poem, fairly overshadowed by its much-revered companion in publication, whose gutpunching final couplet, “I must lie down where all the ladders start / In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart,” seems a more fitting reflection for an era growing crueler by the day.  Still, “Politics” offers a more subtle comment on war and on the human values that might manage to counterweight the clanking engine of political history than its blithely wistful drama might suggest.  And I would argue that Yeats accomplishes this more substantial commentary in the syntax of his poem rather than in its slender content.

Here is Yeats’s poem as it appeared in published form:



‘In our time the destiny of man presents its meanings in political terms.’



How can I, that girl standing there,
My attention fix
On Roman or on Russian
Or on Spanish politics,
Yet here’s a travelled man that knows
What he talks about,
And there’s a politician
That has both read and thought.
And maybe what they say is true
Of war and war’s alarms,
But O that I were young again
And held her in my arms.[i]


It is instructive to compare this published version with an earlier draft, sent along with a personal letter to Yeats’s longtime correspondent Dorothy Wellesley.  Though the two versions are quite similar in their conclusions, the unpublished draft’s opening is different from the poem that finally appeared in The Atlantic:

Beside that window stands a girl;
I cannot fix my mind
On their analysis of things
That benumb mankind.[ii]


In Yeats’s revision, the specifics of “wars and war’s alarms” come more clearly into focus with his mention of Rome and Russia and Spain, each a site of political conflict and escalating violence.  But even as the brutal world sharpens into contemporary resonance, the girl beside the window intrudes into the opening sentence, standing between the poem and its ostensible topic.  In the early draft, the girl serves as the poem’s initiating impulse; she is the poem’s first impression, taking up the whole of its first line.  But in the revision, the girl disrupts the logic of the opening statement:  “How can I,” the poem begins…and then we must wait to discover the end of that opening question. The figure of “that girl standing there” presses against the perception with sufficient force to dislodge the end of the sentence, to displace the world and all its gathering wars.  The speaker’s very grammar is momentarily disoriented as “that girl standing there” asserts herself beyond the sensical, a pure presence that the speaker is resistless to register.  She intervenes in the speaker’s awareness just as she intervenes in the masculine space of political discussion, in the serious talk of war by the worldly-wise.  In the revised version of Yeats’s poem, the syntax performs the very argument the poem will develop semantically:  that the personal, the private, the local jostles a life with greater impact than the grand sweep of world events does.


Yeats’s use of syntax to make an argument about what matters most in wartime is felicitous in light of the etymology of the term.  Syntax, denoting the order and arrangement of words, is derived from the Greek prefix συν-, meaning “together,” and τάσσω, which broadly indicates the act of arranging (think “taxidermy”: an arrangement of skin; or “taxonomy”: an arrangement of objects by name) but chiefly and specifically denotes the drawing up of troops into a battle array, or the mustering of military forces into strategic arrangement.  Thus Aeschylus has Eteokles announce that he will “τάξω” soldiers—arrange them strategically—outside the city gates in Seven Against Thebes.[iii]


The idea of the calculated, careful organization of objects together toward a defined purpose lingers within the modern term we use to describe word order; an awareness of this deep etymological echo may challenge us to approach the work of constructing our sentences differently.


In light of this ancient derivation, Syntax may be productively understood as the strategic arrangement of words as for battle, a deliberate and tactical (sprung from the same Greek root!) positioning of language for maximal effect.  Consider how the order in which we encounter the words in this stanza governs our apprehension of its concerns:

Safe in their Alabaster Chambers—
Untouched by Morning
And untouched by Noon—
Lie the meek members of the Resurrection—
Rafter of Satin—and Roof of Stone![iv]


The first word in Emily Dickinson’s 1861 masterpiece is “Safe.” Before we even know (for a full four lines!) the noun that this adjective modifies, the poem asserts the idea of safety as a principal interest.  As the first sentence unspools, “Safe” is followed by three adjectival lines that reinforce the notion of safety: who- or whatever is in those “Alabaster Chambers” remains “Untouched” and again “untouched” by the rays of the sun.  “Untouched” in line 2 initially seems to reinforce the security of the poem’s first word, though as the second and third lines develop, the desirability of the kind of safety the poem describes grows a bit more complicated.  “Untouched,” we discover, “by Morning” and “by Noon”—that seems a surprise, since dawn is generally associated with hope and renewal and noon with bright light.  Line 4 gives us our first, much deferred, verb:  “Lie”; but because the poem’s accumulation of adjectival phrases has troubled the idea of safety, we hear the echo of falsehood, of untruth in that “Lie,” the verb marked by our growing discomfort with the brand of security this poem promises.  And then finally, in line four, buried beneath three distinct assertions of safe inaccessibility, we arrive at the noun phrase “the meek members of the Resurrection.”  These figures are not among Dickinson’s advance troops; held until the middle of the fourth line, their force is tertiary to the three adjectival phrases, their agency even in the fairly passive verb “Lie” shunted off until after the verb itself.  What brand of safety is this?: unagencied, syntactically subordinated, insulated from the lively white space that precedes and surrounds the poem…  Indeed, the rafter (that which is close at hand) may be aesthetically as lovely as satin, but in the impenetrable “Roof of Stone” of this sentence the dead find themselves envaulted in only a sterile and powerless security.


“Safe” is our entry into Dickinson’s poem, and all subsequent words respond to its originating principle.  To translate this observation into the martial terms of troop arrangement, “Safe” is the van of Dickinson’s guard, the tip of her spear.  It casts its assurances over the rest of the poem:  time passes and the world cycles through its petty interplay of rule and conquest, but the dead are preserved, as it were, in a “Safe” of rock.  As the poem progresses to its conclusion, its second stanza ironizes the first word’s assertion, to be sure—the diminishment of all human endeavor into cosmic insignificance troubles the efficacy of metaphysical protection.  But before we even arrive at the second stanza’s vaster contemplations, the syntax of the first stanza has told us all we need to know about the feckless fate of the “Safe.”


Both Yeats and Dickinson enlist syntax as an expressive device, allowing the order in which the words appear to contribute substantively to the argument of their poems. Indeed, syntax always contributes substantively to the argument of a poem, though it does not always announce itself as ostentatiously as it does in “Politics” and “Safe in their Alabaster Chambers.”  We cannot help but process poetry linearly, word by word, as one datum after another, each word informing our experience of the next word and the next.  It may be profitable to think of syntax’s strategic arrangement as one version of the way time is expressed in a poem; syntax renders our perception (of both words and the objects and ideas to which they refer) sequential, transforming the simultaneity of sense impression into a process governed by relationality:  “that girl standing there” is powerful enough a presence to disrupt world concerns, the interpersonal deferring the urgency of the global.  The grammatical agent and action of Dickinson’s stanza (“the meek members” who “lie”) are held in inactive suspense beneath three safe phrases, indicating the inert costs of such metaphysical security.  As these two brief examples show, the syntax of a sentence does real communicative work, organizing readerly apprehension of a poem’s concerns.  As with all poetic elements—rhyme, meter, lineation, and other forms of sonic and structural recurrence—the syntax of a sentence is a choice (or rather, a series of choices) the writer makes, whether wittingly or not, to communicate the poem’s priorities.  Though perhaps too often overlooked as a poetic strategem, syntax arrays itself before the Thebes of the attention, one word succeeding another as the poem’s wider campaign reveals itself to the temporal mind.

[i] “Politics,” The Atlantic (January 1939): 73.

[ii] Letters on Poetry from W. B. Yeats to Dorothy Wellesley, ed. Dorothy Wellesley (London: Oxford University Press, 1940): 180.

[iii] Seven Against Thebes, in Aeschylus, with an English translation by Herbert Weir Smyth (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann, Ltd., 1926): line 285.

[iv] Printed as poem 216 in The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, edited by Thomas H. Johnson (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1960): 100.



Kimberly Johnson is the author of four poetry collections, including most recently Fatal (Persea
Books, 2022), written largely in response to the terminal diagnosis of her late spouse, the poet
Jay Hopler. Her translation of Virgil’s Georgics, which includes the earliest narration of the now-
familiar story of Orpheus and Eurydice, was published by Penguin Classics in 2009. Recipient
of fellowships and awards from the Guggenheim Foundation, the NEA, and the Utah Arts
Council, Johnson has recent work in the Academy of American Poets’ Poem-a-Day series and in
The Best American Poetry 2020.