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Content Knowledge

Organized Violence Against Auden's Sea-Dingle

Jakobson's definition of literature as "organized violence committed on ordinary speech" (Eagleton, 4) can help readers better understand and interpret poems like Auden's "Doom is dark and deeper than any sea-dingle". However, even Jakobson's definition necessitates some close reading, much like the poem, in order to clarify its meaning enough to put it to use in such a way. Though Jakobson's criticism may have a significant bearing on the interpretation of Auden's poem, it is not without its limitations. By using unorthodox linguistic form, word choice and order, and ultimately holding true to Jakobson's definition of literature, Auden does carry out some violence against language, though not in a harmful or damaging way, and certainly not without purpose.

To break down Jakobson's definition, one must first decide what is meant by his use of the word, "violence" because of its position as the operative word in the statement. In regards to Auden's poem, "violence" does not necessarily refer to physical harm. Instead, the word order and choice in the poem allows readers to see how Auden takes, or cuts apart everyday language to use in his piece. He therefore makes words and phrases used in common speech his own form of poetic expression. Atypical phrases in this poem are frequently used as synonyms for words that would normally be chosen for everyday speech. The first examples of this literary function are found in the first line. "Doom" here refers to God's judgment rather than the everyday definition of a horrible fate. Additionally, at the end of the line, the poet chooses "sea-dingle" instead of "valley" or "trench" in the ocean. Auden uses, "undried sea" (line 9) rather than simply "sea" which automatically implies a body of water.

The poet also chooses to form his phrases in structurally disordered ways as in line 17, "Kissing of wife." Additionally, Auden alters everyday language in his poem by combining two words into one hyphenate. "Day-wishing," (line 3), "stone-haunting," (line 13), and "bird-flocks" (line 19), are all examples of such combinations. By altering certain words' natural forms, Auden seems to be committing the kind of violence against language to which Jakobson was referring.

Auden excludes some words altogether that would normally be found in certain phrases as they exist in their everyday use. He excludes words like, "a" or "the" in the phrase, "Waving from window," (line 16), and therefore changes the sound of the line, though not the meaning. Though this seems to be the kind of choice that Jakobson might consider violence against language, this line indicates that altering or cutting apart the word order and format of everyday speech does not need to harm the integrity of the language and can be equally effective in communicating a particular desired message. In fact, because this poem with its excluded words is still considered literary, there is some indication that part of the definition requires that literature uses language in an uncommon way, but still needs to maintain the significance of the piece. Thus the words themselves, or lack of, cannot detract from the sense of the poem as a whole.

However, though Auden's word choice and order are atypical, there is clear purpose behind his decision to write his poem in such a manner. Thus, holding true to Jakobson's criticism, Auden does not commit meaningless or directionless violence against everyday speech, but rather has intention and uses some method, thus making his violence organized. Additionally, the pure fact that this piece is written in the form of a poem suggests a kind of intentional structure, again implying organization behind the words of the piece. The physically violent language in this poem also clarifies and highlights the difference between violence done to language and literal physical harm. Auden's piece includes images of "hostile capture" (line 21) and "gradual ruin spreading like a stain" (line 26) which are both indicative of impending danger and harm to come to the man in the poem. Auden also starts the poem on a dark note by choosing "Doom" (line 1) as the first word. When applying Jakobson's criticism to this poem by Auden, readers are given a clearer example of how these two kinds of violence differ, but also how they can easily exist within the lines of the same poem.

The inclusion of violent harm in the poem brings to light one of the potential problems or even limitations of Jakobson's statement. Because the word "violence" has a naturally negative connotation, audiences may not see the application of such a word in regards to language itself. Additionally, the word violent, when using the most typical definition, gives the impression that the literary ruins everyday speech, when in fact, writing that is considered "literary" uses altered everyday language that is changed in such a way as to employ typical speech in an unorthodox way, thus enhancing, not destroying, the language itself.

When paired with Auden's poem, readers are able to have the two meanings of the word clarified and see that violence done to language does not necessarily mean violent language. Another limitation of such a definition is that it depends on the idea that there is a standard way of speaking and standard format for language in general. If one were to believe that there is no linguistic norm, it would be hard for a writer or speaker to deviate from it, and therefore unlikely they would be able to cause any violence against it. Thus, because Jakobson operates under the assumption that there is a stock format for language, and specifically speech, his criticism does not account for the possibility that there is no true standard.

Ultimately, Jakobson's definition of what is literary helps to explain many of the linguistic decisions poets, including Auden, make when writing pieces that use language uncommon to everyday speech. It also makes an attempt to clarify what makes Auden's poem a piece of literature when something that also uses language in an unorthodox way might not be considered literary. Because Jakobson's definition includes Auden's poetry, pieces like "Doom is dark and deeper than any sea-dingle" are certainly categorized as "literary" according to this particular literary critic. The limitations of Jakobson's definition are indicative of the vast variety of forms pieces of literature can take as well as the widely differing choices writers can make when deciding what kind of impact they would like to have on the language they use. Overall, by examining this Auden poem in the context of Jakobson's statement readers are given the opportunity to critique both the piece itself as well as the literary theory used to study it and therefore view more of the factors that make this poem a poem and not just a group of words on the page spread out without purpose or meaning.

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