A Cognitive Poetic Analysis of A Lane in the Rain

07/02/2017 13:25
Li Wei
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A Cognitive Poetic Analysis of A Lane in the Rain

        Li Wei

Abstract: Cognitive poetics is concerned with the interpretation of literary texts through the principles borrowed from cognitive psychology and cognitive linguistics. The initiation and development of this discipline offers access to exploration of literary texts from a new perspective. This paper aims to interpret the poem, A Lane in the Rain, from the cognitive poetic perspective and attempts to offer new insights into the analysis.

Keywords: A Lane in the Rain, cognitive poetics, figure-ground, conceptual metaphor

 

1. Introduction

In the late 1970’s, cognitive linguistics emerged as a reaction to the dominance of formalist approaches to language and cognition. With the development of cognitive linguistics, the analysis of literary works gains insight into the understanding of human creativity and artistic pleasure. Reuven Tsur is credited for originating the term cognitive poetics, since he has run a cognitive poetics project since the early 1970s, long before the first publications in cognitive linguistics. Tsur (2002) holds that cognitive poetics is a theory that offers a systematic explanation of the relations between the structure of literary texts and their perceived and conceptualized effects. Stockwell published the textbook Cognitive Poetics: An Introduction in 2002, and Gavins & Steen published Cognitive Poetics in Practice in 2003, both of which contributed a lot to the development of cognitive poetics. Stockwell (2002:1) argues that cognitive poetics is all about reading literature, and the foundation of cognitive poetics obviously lies most directly in cognitive linguistics and cognitive psychology, together forming a large part of the field of cognitive science (2002:3). In Cognitive Poetics: An Introduction, cognitive theories, such as figure-ground, prototype, script and schemas, and conceptual theory, are elaborated for cognitive poetic analysis of literary works. This paper aims to adopt figure-ground and conceptual metaphor theory to interpret the poem A Lane in the Rain written by the famous poet in China, Dai Wangshu.

 

2. Figure-ground

The figure-ground relationship has caught the attention of cognitive linguists. Thus the notion, image schemas, was proposed to represent our orientation in the world, which are mental pictures that we refer to as basic templates for understanding situations that occur commonly. Based on our bodily interaction with the world, we build up image schemas in our minds, and we share particular image schemas with the community where we live. To differentiate figure and ground is a very important cognitive capacity. Suppose we did not have this capacity to tell figure from ground, we could only live in a flat world. Instead, we live in a three-dimensional world, which enables us to distinguish figure from ground. This further proves that our cognition is embodied. Compared with ground, figure is prominent since figure bears one or more of the following features (Stockwell, 2002:15):

•it will be regarded as a self-contained object or feature in its own right, with well-defined edges separating it from the ground;

•it will be moving in relation to the static ground;

•it will precede the ground in time or space;

•it will be a part of the ground that has broken away, or emerges to become the figure;

•it will be more detailed, better focused, brighter, or more attractive than the rest of the field;

•it will be on top of, or in front of, or above, or larger than the rest of the field that is then the ground.

 

In literary works, characters are usually seen as figures because they move across the ground, either spatially or temporally as the story progresses. The movement of characters tends to be represented stylistically by verbs of motion and locative expressions using prepositions, such as over, under, in, out etc. In literary analysis, the most obvious counterpart of the notion of figure and ground is foregrounding. Within a literary text, foregrounding can be created by various ways, like repetition, special syntactic order, rhyme, puns, alliteration, creative metaphor etc. These devices can be taken as deviations from the conventional use of language.

 

3. Conceptual Metaphor

Metaphorology became a flourishing academic discipline again due to George Lakoff and Mark Johnson’s contribution. George Lakoff and Mark Johnson initiated the cognitive semantic approach to metaphor in their classic work Metaphors We Live By (1980) by putting forward conceptual metaphor theory (CMT). The main creed of this approach is that metaphor is a way of thinking and metaphorical expressions are systematically motivated by underlying conceptual metaphors. In other words, CMT is fundamentally concerned with the conceptual metaphors from which linguistic representations are produced naturally as Santa Ana (2002:29) points out:

        [T]he cognitivist focus of attention is not on individual sentences. The object is not any particular linguistic expression of metaphor, but the metaphoric mapping between two semantic domains.

In the traditional approach of metaphor, the explained element is the tenor while the explaining element is the vehicle. But in the cognitive approach, the explained element is labelled as the target domain while the explaining element is labelled as the source domain. Metaphor is one of the main muscles of thought. Cognitive linguistics models the process of metaphor as a mapping of properties between the source domain and the target domain. Source domains are typically more experientially basic than target domains.

 

4. Cognitive poetic analysis of A Lane in the Rain

Dai Wangshu (March 5, 1905–February 28, 1950) was a Chinese poet, essayist and translator. In 1927, especially after the massacre which occurred in April 12, China was shrouded in white terror. Dai Wangshu, also a revolutionist, eluded capture by hiding in his friend’s home south of the Yangtze River, where he created the poem A Lane in the Rain to express his loneliness both physical and mental, and the disillusion of his dream.

Conceptual metaphor dominates the whole poem. Firstly, the title itself A Lane in the Rain is a metaphor. The lane is deep, quiet and solitary, especially in the rain. The drizzling rain facilitates the gloomy and lonely atmosphere. Therefore, the gloomy atmosphere of the lane in the drizzling rain (the source domain) is mapped onto the poet’s melancholy feelings (the target domain). The dark and cruel reality and the long life journey (the source domain) are mapped to the rainy lane (the target domain). The grim and depressing rainy lane symbolizes the dark and cruel reality, and also the long life journey. The title, A Lane in the Rain sets the keynote of gloominess for the whole poem. In the framework of figure-ground, the lane in the rain can be labelled as the ground. The whole poem will be unfolding in the ground, the rainy lane.

Alone holding an oil-paper umbrella,

       I wander along a long

Solitary lane in the rain.[1]

 

In the first stanza, the poet, holding an oil-paper umbrella, wanders along a long solitary lane in the rain. The poet, holding an oil-paper umbrella, here as the prominent figure, is foregrounded against the ground, the lane in the rain. The oil-paper umbrella, typical rain gear south of the Yangtze River, leaves great space for the readers to imagine since oil-paper umbrella is vintage, reminiscent, mysterious and hazy. The loneliness of the figure is prominent in the first stanza. When we are lonely and at a loss about what to do and where to go, we have expectations to encounter someone or something to comfort us. So “hoping to encounter a girl like a bouquet of lilacs gnawed by anxiety and resentment” is what the poet expects when he wanders in the lane. Here the lilac (the source domain) is mapped onto the girl (the target domain) because in Chinese ancient poetry, lilac symbolizes grief over the passing of spring, sadness and sorrow.

 

  A girl

        The color of lilacs,

        The fragrance of lilacs,

        The worries of lilacs,

        Feeling melancholy in the rain,

        Plaintive and hesitating.

 

The imaginary girl is compared to lilac: she possesses the color, fragrance and worries of lilac since lilac is beautiful, fresh, elegant and sad. Lilac is sad, and looks even sadder in the rain. The girl, like a lilac, emits a sad fragrance. Besides, the imaginary girl, as a figure, moves onto the ground, the rainy lane. The ground here, the dark, gloomy and rainy lane, facilitates and accentuates the sadness of the girl, and the sadness of the poet. The lilac girl wanders with sadness and hesitation in the solitary and rainy lane.

Then in the third stanza, the imaginary lilac girl becomes more alive and more dynamic. She wanders in the rainy lane, just like what the poet does, silently and slowly wandering along the lane, detached, melancholy and forlorn. The imagery of the lilac girl stands vividly on the paper. So there are two figures against the ground, the imaginary girl and the poet, and both of them are walking in the rainy lane, holding oil-paper umbrellas. Inside the rainy lane, both of them are melancholy and sad. The poet wants to encounter the lilac girl because he is sad and lonely and eager to meet someone who is equally sad and lonely.

 

Silently she comes closer,

       Closer, giving me

A glance like a sigh.

 

The fourth stanza starts with the further elaboration of the action and expression of the imaginary girl: in silence she comes by, glancing at the poet with her eye, where there is a deep sigh. Synesthesia, as a special kind of metaphor, intensifies the sorrowful feelings of the lilac girl. The sigh (the source domain) is mapped onto her glance (the target domain). She doesn’t sigh, but she is overwhelmed and haunted by sadness, which penetrates into her eyes. The poet can empathize with her and feel her deep sigh in her eyes. The lilac girl is imaginary, not real; she drifts by, like a dream. The dream (the source domain) is mapped onto the lilac girl (the target domain) since dream is vague, unreal, intangible, illusory, dreary and blank, and the lilac girl is untrue and imaginary. Dreams reveal insight into hidden desires and emotions. The lilac girl symbolizes love and dreams, which the poet pursues.


Like a lilac

       Floating past in a dream,

       the girl floats past me;

       Silently she goes further and further,

       To the crumbling wall,

Out of the lane in the rain.

 

Yet in the fifth stanza she continues to float away from the poet’s eye like a dream since dream is intangible, cannot be touched nor grasped. She, as the foregrounded figure, moves across the ground and finally moves to the place where the crumbling wall lies. As another ground here, the crumbling wall is broken, decadent, dreary and forlorn, which enhances the depressing atmosphere of the whole poem. The rainy lane also serves as a CONTAINER, based on the framework of image schemas. Lakoff and Johnson (1980:30) hold that “we are physical beings, bounded and set off from the rest of the world by the surface of our skins, and we experience the rest of the world as outside us. We project our own in-out orientation onto other physical objects that are bounded by surfaces.” The imaginary lilac girl appears and wanders in the CONTAINER, the rainy lane, which illuminates the poet’s hope and desire for beautiful things, such as love and dreams. Yet the lilac girl is not real, and like an untouchable dream, floats and floats away from the poet, and to the end of the rainy lane, where the crumbling wall lies, and finally out of the rainy lane.


  In the mournful melody of the rain,

        Her color has faded,

        Her fragrance has disappeared,

       Vanished into the void;

        Even her glance like a sigh,

Melancholy like lilacs.

 

In the sixth stanza, in the mournful melody of the rain, the lilac girl disappears, so does her lilac color, her lilac fragrance, and even her sighing glance, and so does the poet’s desire for love and dreams. The mournful melody (the source domain) is mapped onto the pattering of the rain (the target domain). The pattering of the rain is endowed with the mournful melody, and thus makes the picture more melancholy. She is no longer in the rainy lane, nor in the poet’s reach. She is gone, so is the poet’s hope for love and for dreams.

The seventh stanza is the reiteration of the first stanza, except that in the first stanza the poet hopes to encounter a girl like a lilac while in the last stanza he hopes to pass a girl like a lilac. The poem starts with the poet’s expectation to encounter a beautiful girl like a lilac and ends with his expectation to pass a girl like a lilac because after the unfolding of his imagination, he is aware that there could only occur silent and temporary communication between the lilac girl and him. The context is back to the original point, which indicates that the whole story, the lilac girl, her lilac complexion, her fragrance, the sigh in her glance, is just void and everything is over. The poet is immersed again in the melancholy thoughts.

Metaphor is pervasive in the whole poem to express the poet’s melancholy feelings and his struggle for love and dreams. The metaphors, a lane in the rain, oil-paper umbrella, a lilac girl, dream, crumbling wall, form a metaphor cluster to highlight the cheerless, lonely, gloomy atmosphere. The poet’s selective use of these source concepts, rather than others, sets off the strong sad atmosphere from the very beginning to the end. The picture painted by the metaphorical expressions is impressive and thus lingers in the reader’s mind.

 

5. Conclusion

Cognitive poetics, based on embodied philosophy, is a school of literary criticism that applies the principles of cognitive science, particularly cognitive psychology and cognitive linguistics, to the interpretation of literary texts. Gavins & Steen(2003:1) argue that cognitive poetics sees literature not just as a matter for the happy few, but as a specific form of everyday human experience and especially cognition that is grounded in our general cognitive capacities for making sense of the world. Poetry is one of the most important ways for human beings to express their feelings. Cognitive poetics offers access to exploring poetry from a different perspective.

 

References:

[1] Gavins, J., & Steen, G.. Cognitive poetics in practice. London: Routledge, 2003.

[2] Lakoff, G.. Women, fire, and dangerous things: What categories reveal about the mind. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987.

[3] Lakoff, G. and Johnson, M. Metaphors we live by. Chicago: University of

Chicago Press, 1980.

[4] Santa Ana, O. Brown tide rising: Metaphors of Latinos in contemporary American discourse. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2002.

[5] Stockwell, P. Cognitive poetics: An introduction. London and New York: Routledge, 2002.

[6] Tusr, R.. Toward a theory of cognitive poetics. Amsterdam: North Holland, 1992.

[7] A Retrospective of Chinese literature, Beijing: Foreign Language and Research Press, Chinese Literature Press, 1998.

 

Appendix

A Lane in the Rain

Dai Wangshu

Alone holding an oil-paper umbrella,

I wander along a long

Solitary lane in the rain,

Hoping to encounter

A girl like a bouquet of lilacs

Gnawed by anxiety and resentment.

 

A girl

The color of lilacs,

The fragrance of lilacs,

The worries of lilacs,

Feeling melancholy in the rain,

Plaintive and hesitating.

 

She wanders along the solitary lane in the rain,

Holding an oil-paper umbrella

Just as I do,

Just like me,

Walking slowly in silence,

Aloof, sad and melancholy.

 

Silently she comes closer,

Closer, giving me

A glance like a sigh;

Then she floats past

Like a dream,

Dreary and blank like a dream.

 

Like a lilac

Floating past in a dream,

the girl floats past me;

Silently she goes further and further,

To the crumbling wall,

Out of the lane in the rain.

 

In the mournful melody of the rain,

Her color has faded,

Her fragrance has disappeared,

Vanished into the void;

Even her glance like a sigh,

Melancholy like lilacs.

 

Alone holding an oil-paper umbrella,

I wander along a long

Solitary lane in the rain,

Hoping to pass

A girl like a bouquet of lilacs

Gnawed by anxiety and resentment.


[1] The English translation of the poem is taken from the book: A Retrospective of Chinese Literature, Beijing: Foreign Language Teaching and Research Press, 1998. 

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