The following essay forms the second half of 'Interior Ears', the hand out from 'I Know Something About Love', the "Intercapillary Places" launch event.


Labyrinth As World: Fragments on the Poetry of Construction and Return

Edmund Hardy


To Wander

A wander-artist has made of life a labyrinth: the path will be longer than they have steps to walk it, the world has become infinite. To lose geography in this way, to live by a silken thread, is an error, erreur related to errer, 'to wander'. Without limits, the world is virtual, and a life becomes an open work: this is the idea of the labyrinth as world – one of capture, false consciousness, contradiction, loss, emblazoning. The logic of this world also depends upon the idea of a return, a line, a way back.


Various somatic epics of the early seventeenth century were written with a new knowledge of anatomy while remaining in a pre-Cartesian unity, the body was the "abstract" of all, or of God, its labyrinthine structure and variety of textures understood as the site of an organising principle – of government, nature, or the divine: poets were commonly "seeing macrocosmic effects rooted in microcosmic affects" (William W E Slights, The Heart in the Age of Shakespeare). John Norden's The Labyrinth of Mans Life (1614) maps out the movements of a body in the world, and David Kynloch's De hominis procreatione (1596) dissects and anatomizes, in each chapter a new organ. Some of these works syntactically texture and formally structure themselves in order to push the proportional analogy of the body's labyrinth into embodied poetry. The most extended of these poems is Phineas Fletcher's The Purple Island (1633), a geographical tour around the body – or the "Isle of Man" – empurpled by blood, full of streams, caverns, sponges and rock foundations. James Joyce, outlining an inspiration for Ulysses, described Fletcher's poem to Frank Budgen as "a kind of coloured anatomical chart of the human body" (quoted in Sawday), but if so this allegorical doubling keeps both the island and an anatomical chart overlaid and flickering before us.

In Fletcher's poem, the labyrinth as device of capture, and of life, like a cell, is laid out in a stanza which is also a labyrinth, from the entrance through the eye in the first line to the "no way out" of the last:

So when a fisher-swain by chance hath spi'd 
A big-grown Pike pursue the lesser frie, 
He sets a withy Labyrinth beside, 
And with fair baits allures his nimble eye; 
     Which he invading with out-stretched finne, 
     All suddainly is compast with the ginne, 
Where there is no way out, but easie passage in. 

One shift in scale and the maze is a bodily form, veined and inexorable:

Nor is there any part in all this land, 
But is a little Isle: for thousand brooks 
In azure chanels glide on silfer sand; 
Their serpent windings, and deceiving crooks 
     Circling about, and wat'ring all the plain, 
     Emptie themselves into th' all-drinking main; 
And creeping forward slide, but never turn again. 

The body creates time, its blood flow creates the future – the labyrinth pulses, and is also like a lung, drawing in and marking what it draws.

The most brilliant poet to write scientific epics in this period was John Davies, precisely because of his understanding that "The world was structured according to a gigantic act of repetition – a continual recapitulation – and that repetitive tendency was best mirrored in the compressed language and rhythms of poetry." (Sawday, The Body Emblazoned) Davies' three scientific epics – Mirum in modum (1602), in which he explores "the sev'rall caverns of the Braine"; Microcosmos (1603), subtitled 'The Discovery of the Little World, and the Government thereof'; and Summa Totalis (1607), in which the superstructure of all creation is conjoined to the human body – are written in irregular Spenserian niners, a cellular form in which to riddle and repeat, as here in Microcosmos, where parenthesis, alliteration and the part reversal of sense build up a rhetoric of compressed forkings, the line repeating and dividing within itself, like a split hair, or tract:

But having toucht the Braine, the Soule, the Will,
(All which (save the soule) can brooke no touch)
It rests that Reason's heasts wee doe fulfil,
To prosecute much more, or more then much,
That Witt for Will wil willingly avouch:

The repetitions here are not accumulative; they impose new meanders, new breaks. By the end of the 1630s, Descartes' sense of the mind's estrangement from the body would draw a stop to this brief flourishing rhetoric of the labyrinthine body-world.


"The circle, uncurled along a straight line rigorously prolonged, reforms a circle eternally bereft of a centre." (Maurice Blanchot). For the post-Enlightenment wander-artist the labyrinth begins to figure a totalizing disaster; everything but the desire to wander is blanked out, now the wanderer looks back to an Enlightenment which uncurled the circle: reason dissected itself into nothing, leaving no centre or guarantee, the long line of nihilism, rigorously prolonged, shoots out from the steps of the wander-artist. To carry on going is the same as dying.

Return from the Absurd

But first a contradiction which would correct the wander-artist, and fill the circle with existing things. Alexander Pope changed a line from the first Epistle in his Essay on Man, so that the object of the necessary desire to

Expatiate free o'er all this scene of man;

A mighty maze! and all without a plan

became "A mighty maze! but not without a plan". In his discussion of this change, William Empson considers the ambiguity to lie in the nature of the maze itself. For the person within the maze, there is no plan, other than the partial plan which experience finds. But the maze by its form also engenders a faith that it has a plan beyond any single point, and it is mighty, a serious pun on almighty – the world is a transcendent field which, at each location, points to an ultimate plan: "to admit it might not have a plan while taking for granted it was capable of having a plan made for it, this expression of doubt is the final expression of security; shows the fading from consciousness of any further need for the encouragement of external faith; views from outside and has learnt not to imagine the isolation of the heart of man." (William Empson) The maze is mighty because it is larger than we can know, but it is worth looking "about us" within the perimeter of our lives to comprehend as much of its plan as possible. The world as a maze is rational and vast but not mysterious. For Pope, a return from the absurd, as Empson argues, rests its security on doubt itself, the Essay on Man's moral vision draws strength from this ambiguity, this maze.


What if a return no longer seems possible, if the strength is lacking, if the absurd structurings of the world have grown too strong? But one response which thinks with labyrinths lies in the idea of a voyage back through the turns of experience, back out through the false. This is the mapping which R. D. Laing outlines in the chapter 'A Ten-Day Voyage' in The Politics of Experience, "the direction we have to take is back and in, because it was way back when we started to go down and out". It is a reorientation – literally to know where the east, the orient, really lies, the source of light, that is, the sources of our experience. The voyage back will be difficult, because it involves a radical demystification, going through "a veil which is more like fifty feet of solid concrete". The wall of the labyrinth is so well built because its consistency is given through humane concern and even love.

Emblazoning II

The absolutely negative in the poetics of Alice Notley's Descent of Alette is granted a radical reordering power. This is an epic somatic poem of the labyrinth, although its body is corrupt, the inverse of the true. Here absolute negativity can create the new, and Notley calls it 'disobedience'. The poem's voyage is through a body, its caverns and scenes, emblems and dangers; it is the body of 'the Tyrant'. Each line pushes on in counter-breaths or pulses, counter to any inherited epic form. Notley's essential unit brachiates onwards:

"I found" "a room of voices" "It was a cave of" "small containers"

To kill the tyrant is to change the world because his body is the labyrinth itself. Pushed back to the land of the dead, the labyrinth below, the journey is one of self-mortification, which can be defined as "an attempt to reconcile oneself with the destitution of reality by systematically undermining one's own ability to maintain illusions" (Dominic Fox) – post-labyrinth, the poem ends with an attempt to imagine what would come next, what we might call the problem of re-enchantment.

Love Made a Maze

"And let us tread the lower labyrinth; I'll bring thee to the clue." Thomas Middleton's line from The Changeling opens out a lower labyrinth of love. A surfeiting love can flood out the contours of speech into a maze, as difficult as it is impassioned. The Celia sonnets by the Scottish poet David Murray (1567 – 1629) trace out the effect of love on language, creating, in one sonnet, a literary image of the circular Chartres form of maze, as laid out on a cathedral floor or, more particularly for Murray's poem, planted with water in a garden. At the presence of the beloved, language as a lucid stream suddenly flexes and splits, splintering into bright loops, writing out the poem. The "christal brooke" can't bear to flow on into the sea; instead it circles back around the beloved, to reflect, multiply, and sing: "In thousand strange meanders made returne". A surfeit scores a pattern, such that, even when the force which stood at the centre of the maze has gone, when the beloved is lost, the pattern remains, now darkened, as in a later sonnet in Murray's sequence: "Shadowing my face with sable cloudes of griefe." These intricate meanders, time run back through time, use the conceit of love's mazy effect to figuratively embody the love poem's explicit hope, which is that speech will call out love.


The fearful, death filled space of the Cretan labyrinth remains in contemporary architecture, which must plan for the moment when a fire breaks out and a building turns from safe location to labyrinthine trap. Michel Serres describes a fire on a boat: "Smoke stings your eyes, fills the whole space, chokes you. Blinded, you have to lie down. You can only grope your way out. Touch is the last remaining means of guiding yourself." This is the labyrinth as disaster, irresistible resolve. Serres recounts how the pressure and fear of this reduction in the sensible, of intense spatial experience, can result in the discovery of a moving point of bodily awareness, or a balance point, the point which he calls the body's living I: "You only have to pass through a small opening, a blocked corridor, to swing over a handrail or on a balcony high enough to provoke vertigo, for the body to become alert. [...] [The body] judges deviations from normal balance, immediately regulates them and knows just how far to go, or not go. Cœnesthesia says I by itself."

Serres naturalises within and without the body what is actually a very long lineage of philosophical dark thoughts. It is the bodily double of Locke's dark room of human understanding which is like a closet "with only some little opening left, to let in external visible remembrances, or ideas of things without. . ." Images are stored within this room, are retrieved or lost. This is the sceptical, cognitive labyrinth, the senses our only threads.




Blanchot, Maurice (trans. Smock), The Writing of the Disaster (Lincoln NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1995).

Empson, William, Seven Types of Ambiguity (London: Random House, 1994).

Fox, Dominic, Cold World (London: Zero Books, 2009).

Laing, R. D., The Politics of Experience (London: Penguin, 1967).

Sawday, Jonathan, The Body Emblazoned: Dissection and the Human Body in Renaissance Culture (London: Routledge, 1995).

Serres, Michel (trans. Sankey and Cowley), The Five Senses: A Philosophy of Mingled Bodies (London: Continuum, 2009).

Slights, William, The Heart in the Age of Shakespeare (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008).

Truby, Stephan, Exit Architecture (Vienna: Springer-Verlag, 2008).


For the poems of David Murray, see the selection in A Choice of Scottish Verse, 1560 – 1660 edited by R. D. S. Jack, (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1978).


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