Classic case of mistaken identity

A Dictionary of Literary Symbols
March 31, 2000

It is not a happy time to be a symbol. "Symbols" are supposed to emerge from what Tennyson called "the abysmal deeps of personality" containing what Yeats would call "images in the great memory stored". Unfortunately, the shallow rites of postmodernism are mainly performed in the temple of the goddess Amnesia, so that symbols have indeed been "stored" in a sense Yeats did not quite allow for. But symbols have also carried with them a perennial penumbra as they shade off into a realm of cults and cranks.

Michael Ferber, a professor of humanities, wants none of all this, and the "literary" in his title attempts to restore the long perspectives of literary history to this contentious kingdom. He is more concerned with how traditional literary props have been handled than with an unriddling of what have, for us, become enigmas, but which, for the original audiences, might have been intended to explain them.

And, unfortunately, what he and the reader discover is that, to use more phrasing from inescapable Yeats, symbols seem to have had their greatness taken with their crankiness. Ferber heaps up instances from "the classics" (the Bible, Greece, Rome, Shakespeare and English Romantic poetry), offering the (actually quite dubious) benefits of a classical education told in snippets. Birds, animals, plants and other natural phenomena figure prominently, including stars and heavenly bodies, together with numbers, musical instruments and others of the persistent features of the literary repertoire.

The book is certainly highly erudite, if in a slightly wearisome way, and fundamental questions are "bracketed". It is not clear what constitutes something as a symbol in the first place. No reference is made to what is assumed to be the dread land of "theory", where symbols are subsumed in semiotics. Ferber is a highly intelligent writer of great substance about Blake and Shelley, but it seems to me that he has taken a header into "literarism" (an Aldous Huxley coinage) to achieve a Pyrrhic victory of academic respectability. He spends less time telling us what unfamiliar references mean than about how familiar ones have been "handled".

Edward Neill teaches literature at Middlesex University.

A Dictionary of Literary Symbols

Author - Michael Ferber
ISBN - 0521 59128 7
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £40.00
Pages - 263

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