4/2/21 — This Week’s Reading Review

Michael Ducker
11 min readApr 2, 2021


This week, I finished reading John Hollander’s The Figure of Echo. It is with a summary of the remainder of that book that we will begin this week’s reading review. Hollander begins his chapter “Echo Metaphorical” by reiterating the distinction between quotation, allusion, and echo. While quotation includes the body of the earlier text in the later text, allusion “may be fragmentary or periphrastic” in its coordination of intertextuality. Allusion is also, in Hollander’s reading, an intentional act of writing: “accidental allusion” would be a contradictory term. “Echo is a metaphor of, and for, alluding, and does not depend on conscious intention. The referential nature of poetic echo […] may be unconscious or inadvertent,” writes Hollander (64). Possible lack of authorial intention and laxity of requirement on readers are essential qualities of the echo. Hollander makes this point repeatedly throughout The Figure of Echo. Indeed, it sometimes feels that this is his only true argument concerning echo. There are, however, interesting parallel observations. For instance, Hollander observes that literary modernism raises the “credential power” of allusive techniques. Allusion in modernist writing becomes “a mode of ironic distancing from the romanticism they spurned and craved” (72). A fine observation — albeit one that is only tangentially related to echoing. Another interesting observation made by Hollander: “the poetic infringement on personal rights through direct of inherent quotation is an important practice” (73). This is fertile ground for further observation, but Hollander does nothing with it, limited as he is by his book’s raison d’être.

He develops his argument in fits and starts, hiding fragments among his sometimes-lengthy examples. We find the observation that “allusive fragments occur in chains of rebound” hidden in the middle of a pages-long — though admittedly quite compelling — explication of avian echoes in English poetry (80). In other cases, a possibly contentious claim will be dropped in, never to be expanded upon by Hollander. Thus, we learn that he believes “The very youthful poet, with no style of hi sown yet and no characteristic voice, cannot truly be said to echo in our sense,” but we are given no explanation as to why he believes this (86). This precise assertion is made even more baffling by the analysis of the Shakespearian influence upon Milton’s first English language poem. Hollander asserts that the poem is resonant of Shakespeare but in no way echoically allusive to him. It is only later in his career when he has become “sufficiently conscious of echoing” that Shakespearian resonances in Milton can be called echoes. The issue here is obvious: Hollander has spontaneously made some degree of intentionality essential to echo. This seems to contradict his prior emphasis on the contrast between the intentionality of allusion and the accidental nature of echo. While this example is brief enough that I can forgive Hollander for not cutting it, it still points to a potential weakness in his argument. Namely, that the distinction between allusion and echo is not clear. Indeed, the distinction seems largely contingent upon Hollander’s critical whims. Although his theory of the echo does point towards differences between types of allusion, I am not convinced that the echo stands out enough to be considered a thing in itself.

Other scattered observations from Hollander include, “echoes of single words grow in volume. Sometimes, after a series of rebounds […], the final sound will have the quality of summing up the whole series of resonances” (92). Since this is a contingent observation rather than a categoric argument, I see no grounds for objection. The same statement applies to this: “A single word or phrase […] may easily carry rumors of its resounding cave” (95). Sure, why not? He also makes the rather obvious observation that the “bidirectional quality of echo” can make the reader hear an echo of a later text in an older one and that poets occasionally exploit this to add power to their writing (102). The former claim is a truism about reading, the latter claim a truism about writing. Another truism about writing observed by Hollander is this: titles can echo too — but only when the intended allusion goes wrong. Gone with the Wind is the example adduced for this, taking its title from a grammatical misunderstanding of a stanza in an Ernest Dowson poem (106–7). Again, this is a contingently true observation about a literary text, but I doubt whether or not there are many other examples of it. He concludes the chapter “Echo Metaphorical” with one final observation: “The rebounds of intertextual echo generally […] distort the original voice in order to interpret it” (111). And indeed, it is the interpretive nature of echo that will be the subject of Hollander’s concluding chapter.

Hollander takes up the rhetorical term metalepsis, or transumption, to talk about echo in his final chapter. He begins by harping on the Saussurean distinction between synchrony and diachrony. While rhetoric is typically a synchronic study of signification — that is, it considers rhetorical figures as they exist outside of time — Hollander has tried to study the rhetorical figure of echo diachronically — as a rhetorical figure whose constitutive text is not only A or B but the relation between A and B over time. It is because of this diachronic nature that Hollander wishes to apply the trope of transumption or metalepsis to echo (114). We would do well here to clarify the rhetorical terminology used. I quote from the second edition of Richard A. Lanham’s A Handlist of Rhetorical Terms. Figure is “a general term for any striking or unusual configuration of words or phrases” (78). Insofar as laypeople think of rhetoric, they typically think of figures (e.g., alliteration, allegory, oxymoron). The definition of trope is a perennial debate in rhetoric. Insofar as it has a consensus meaning, however, it is that of “a figure that changes the meaning of a word or words, rather than simply arranging them in a pattern of some sort” (154–5). (Lanham remarks in an aside that theorists often ignore the thorny fact that all figures affect meaning in at least microscopic ways.

Moreover, there is an embedded hierarchy (implying that there is an identifiable natural or proper use of a term from which tropes enact a drift) here that became a point of contention in the deconstructionist milieu.) Now, metalepsis (or transumption) is a problematic rhetorical figure to define. Indeed, Hollander knows this and appends a history of the trope to The Figure of Echo. Lanham gives a simpler definition than the expansive sense in which Hollander uses it: “Present effect attribute to a remote cause” (99). As such — and this is pointed out by both Lanham and Hollander — metalepsis refers to the content of a figure of speech that has undergone ellipsis. Echo, therefore, belongs to the class metaleptic tropes insofar as echoes derive meaning from and interprets the invisible gap between anterior and posterior text.

All of this is to say that echoes are not hollow textual resonances but filled with the meaning of the temporally-bound textual relationship. Echoes are often not only allusive, Hollander says, but “allusiveness has been brought into the range of its subject,” making the relationship metaleptic rather than metaphoric (122). As with other chapters, Hollander exhausts the actual theoretical content of his argument rather quickly. That done, he goes through examples and repeats his previous points but with an emphasis on their metaleptic qualities. The parallel observations observed in the previous chapter are fewer here. Only Hollander’s comment that “texts themselves in manifesting schematic repetition or self-echo can be particularly resonant when picked up allusively later on” stands out to me (127). Hollander ends his book with a decidedly opaque discussion of echo in Benjamin Britten’s highly allusive song cycle, Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings. Although he likely meant this to be a glorious summing up moment in which all the previous discussion is brought to bear on a single example, Hollander fails to apply the theoretical vocabulary he has been developing. It is a disappointing conclusion that seems closer to a summary of the failures of The Figure of Echo than anything else.

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The theory of echo — like Bloom’s anxiety of influence — helps free the critic from the requirement that they ground arguments for the relationships between authors in biographical, historical, or philological fact. Whether or not this is a responsible critical attitude is, in my view, essentially dependent on the results it produces: does it enable the critic to write histories of revision and influence that not only feel true but that possess superior plausibility and explanatory power than more restrained explications? While there are analyses of echo lineages in the book that are not only illuminating but seem basically true, there are also analyses that strike me as unlikely, such as his argument that Lincoln echoes Genesis 1:12 in the famous opening lines of the Gettysburg Address (66). Indeed, Hollander’s rewriting of the address to make the perceived echo clearer is almost embarrassing, a confession of critical — and perhaps patriotic — fantasy rather than a serious argument.

Hollander occasionally reproaches critics for their modesty — inexplicably using the French word pudeur instead — but it is precisely critical modesty that his book needs. And that modesty may consist in making this book an article instead. Taken in by the perennial temptation felt by critics to make form and content meet, much of The Figure of Echo feels revisionary of itself. “Echo Metaleptic” feels like a mere restatement with variation of the observations in “Echo Metaphorical,” which itself feels like a mere restatement with slight alterations on the “Echo Schematic” chapter. The result is that the actual content of Hollander’s core argument — that echo is a mode of poetic allusion that both alludes and makes allusion part of its content, regardless of authorial intention — consists of smaller claims that appear scattered throughout the text. This scattering of the critical apparatus can hide neither the essential smallness and obviousness of Hollander’s theory of echo nor the weakness of its foundations. There are echoes in texts, and we can certainly speak about them, but Hollander does not make a convincing argument that this is a serious basis for further critical investigation. Like the anxiety of influence, the echo must remain at the level of fodder for educated conversation on literature for the time being.

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I’ve also been reading Horace Walpole’s 1764 novel The Castle of Otranto. This is widely considered the first properly “Gothic” novel. “Gothic” is a strange word and concept. While to the average person, “Gothic” conjures up either tropes of horror, teenage fashion, or European architecture, the historical reality of the Gothic is more varied and complex than that. As Nick Groom’s introduction to The Castle of Otranto clarifies, the Gothic is only contingently related to the actual, historical Goths. The basic history is as follows. The Goths were a German tribe who crossed into the Roman Empire around 376 AD. After a series of conflicts and skirmishes with the Empire, the Goths sacked Rome in 410. They subsequently conquered much of southern Europe. Following this, the identity of the Goths becomes shakier as they merge with local cultures and institutions.

The legacy of the Goths in Europe is a bit unclear, as it is difficult to separate the historical truth of their existence from the myth that their existence was incorporated into during the Renaissance and Early Modern periods. We see the first stage of this myth evolve in the Renaissance, with its glorification of Roman culture and thought. Seizing on the fact that the Goths had sacked Rome and nominally brought the Roman Empire to an end, Renaissance commentators quickly struck upon a critical shortcut: all the elements of European culture not in accordance with classical tastes were to be denounced as Gothic in origin or style. It was in architecture that such a critique first emerged. Writers like Giorgio Vasari criticized “building styles from ninth-century Carolingian in France to fifteenth-century perpendicular in England” as “Gothic.” As Groom makes puts it in his introduction, from that point on, Gothic “became a synonym for everything crude, ignorant, vulgar, brutish, and ferine. Where the Romans were educated and urbane, the Goths were barbarous and rude; where the Romans built and cultivated, the Goths” (xi).

While claims of aesthetic lineage are always difficult to verify or disprove — see my discussion of Hollander’s book The Figure of Echo, for instance — it is hard to characterize the Renaissance view of the Gothic as anything but mythical. Although parts of this inaccurate view of the Goths still linger today (e.g., in our use of the words Goth and gothic), some Renaissance historians sought to clarify the tribe’s historical reality. As classical texts that touched on the Goths — such as Caesar’s Commentaries on the Gallic War and Tacitus’ Agricola — were rediscovered, some researchers and commentators began to see the Goths as enlightened savages rather than mere savages. This view of the Goths as a politically and intellectually nuanced people despite their violence would become important in England following the Reformation. English historians began to construct a narrative in which Goths were not only enlightened savages but a racially pure civilization that stood as an alternative to the Mediterranean origins of Western thought. “Thus [the Goths] were recognized as the ancestors of the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes — from whom the English were themselves descended” (xii).

As English antiquarians began researching Anglo-Saxon forms of government to locate rationales for limiting the King’s power, they also began to locate these forms’ origins in the Goths. (This is also essentially mythic and based on suppositions drawn from the pseudo-scientific climate theory of cultural development.) In an attempt to shore up their claims to counter-sovereign, parliamentary legitimacy — and in opposition to the loyalist, classicist Tories — the Whig Party began to identify themselves with this Gothic heritage (xiii).

This Gothic identification spawned further cultural identifications. Firstly, the English identified both the cavernous architecture of the Middle Age and the ancient ruins that dotted the Kingdom with the Goths. This identification helped to establish the notion that, as Groom puts it, “English architectural history was essentially both continuous and Gothic” (xiii). In addition to grafting Gothicism onto ancient ruins, the English also grafted it onto more recent ruins. As a result of the Reformation’s anti-Catholicism, many Catholic cathedrals and buildings were ransacked, pillaged, vandalized, and ultimately abandoned. The Reformers, rather than tearing down or repurposing these buildings, deliberately let them stand abandoned and vandalized as a reminder of the wages of Catholic idolatry. The Whigs managed to identify with this anti-Catholicism through the equation of the Goths status as an alternative to the Roman Empire with the Reformation’s status alternative to Papal Rome, which they, in turn, equated to their skepticism of monarchy and its European origins. Thus, “an aesthetic of ruin […] emerged from this historical and religion carnage” (xv). I quote Groom at length here as he condenses in a manner that I cannot improve upon:

“If as a national religion Catholicism was ostensibly dead, it refused to lie down, and the superstitious imagination of the people populated all its architectural wreckage with ghosts — the revenants of a Catholic medieval past: vengeful spirits, shadowy monks and nuns, uncanny manifestations. The Gothic imagination — as it would be named centuries later — took shape therefore in the dilapidated wreck of ecclesiastical architecture, and was haunted by the inexorable violence that had powered the political and social progress of the nation. […] From this complicated and contradictory mix a recognizable Gothic culture arose in the eighteenth century” (xv).

In Horace Walpole, Gothic politics, architecture, and literature all intermingled. It is to him and his book The Castle of Otranto that we will return next week.

Until then,

Michael Ducker