Saturday, February 04, 2006

Six Lectures on Sound and Meaning - Roman Jakobson (1942)

Lecture I

Source: Lectures on Sound & Meaning, publ. MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass., 1937, Preface by Claude Lévi-Strauss. Most of first and all of last lectures reproduced here.

I AM SURE you are familiar with Edgar Allan Poe’s famous poem The Raven, and with its melancholy refrain, ‘Nevermore.’ This is the only word uttered by the ominous visitor, and the poet emphasises that ‘what it utters is its only stock and store.’ This vocable, which amounts to no more than a few sounds, is none the less rich in semantic content. It announces negation, negation for the future, negation for ever. This prophetic refrain is made up of seven sounds seven, because Poe insists on including the final r which is, he says, ‘the most producible consonant.’ It is able to project us into the future, or even into eternity. Yet while it is rich in what it discloses, it is even richer in what it secretes, in its wealth of virtual connotations, of those particular connotations which are indicated by the context of its utterance or by the overall narrative situation. Abstracted from its particular context it carries an indefinite range of implications. ‘I betook myself to linking/ fancy unto fancy,’ the poet tells us, ‘thinking what this ominous bird of yore -/ What this grim, ungainly, ghastly, gaunt, and ominous bird of yore/ Meant in croaking "Nevermore"./ This I sat engaged in guessing ... This and more I sat divining... .’ Given the context of the dialogue the refrain conveys a series of different meanings: you will never forget her, you will never regain peace of mind, you will never again embrace her, I will never leave you! Moreover this same word can function as a name, the symbolic name which the poet bestows upon his nocturnal visitor.


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