Trailing Clouds of Glory: An Implied Parallelism of William Wordsworth by Robert Louis Stevenson

mardy_grothe_foolkissMardy Grothe, in his book, Never Let A Fool Kiss You or a Kiss Fool You (Penguin Books, 1999), introduces the concept of “implied chiasmus”, which describes “a special kind of abbreviated chiastic expression.” He explains:

“Ordinarily chiasmus contains two phrases or clauses, the second one reversing the first. In implied chiasmus a reversal implies a saying–generally a well-known one–but stands alone.” (Chapter 16)

A clever example he shares is from the Muppet character, Kermit the Frog:

“Time’s fun when you’re having flies.”

This is an implied chiasm of the well-known idiom:

“Time flies when you’re having fun.”

Grothe’s concept of implied chiasmus acknowledges the parallel attributes of spoonerisms, the “interchange of sounds” that produces “a phrase with a meaning entirely different from the one intended” and which is quite humorous. In a classic spoonerism, the sound order is inverted from the familiar or intended phrase, so that together they create a chiasm and separated they create an implied chiasm. Implied chiasmus is similar to “phonetic chiasmus,” described in Farnsworth’s Classical English Rhetoric (David R. Godine, 2010), which is “based just on the sound or length of the words involved.”

Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894) uses both implied chiasmus and implied parallelism in his writings. This article discusses a profound example of implied parallelism from Stevenson’s essay, “Aes Triplex” (1878), that references the words of William Wordsworth (1770-1850).

As an aside, according to the LDS Scripture Citation Index, Robert Louis Stevenson has been quoted more by President Thomas S. Monson in General Conference addresses than by any other LDS General Authority. President Monson also frequently quoted the words of William Wordsworth that are implied by Stevenson in this parallelism. To our knowledge, President Monson was unaware of this reference in Stevenson’s writings, but we consider this implied chiasm to be a fitting tribute to the life of President Thomas S. Monson.


Stevenson and Wordsworth:

Robert Louis Stevenson

Robert Louis Stevenson’s essay, “Aes Triplex” (1878), challenges the conventional thinking that death is the worst possible thing that can happen to a person and, instead, argues that not embracing life is worse than death. At the conclusion of his essay, he describes those who die while in the midst of pursuing “good work with their whole hearts”. He writes:

“In the hot-fit of life, a-tiptoe on the highest point of being, he passes at a bound on to the other side. The noise of the mallet and chisel is scarcely quenched, the trumpets are hardly done blowing, when, trailing with him clouds of glory, this happy starr’d, full-blooded spirit shoots into the spiritual land.” (emphasis added)

William Wordsworth

In describing the transition from mortality into “the spiritual land”, Stevenson uses an implied parallelism of William Wordsworth’s immortal words from “Ode on Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood” (1807) about our divine origin and pre-mortal life in the presence of God:

“Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting;
The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star,
         Hath had elsewhere its setting
              And cometh from afar;
         Not in entire forgetfulness,
         And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
              From God, who is our home:” (emphasis added)


Diagram and Analysis:

A: But trailing clouds of glory
B: do we
C: come From
D: God, who is our home:

A: trailing with him clouds of glory,
B: this happy starr’d, full-blooded spirit
C: shoots into
D: the spiritual land.

Stevenson’s meaning seems to be that, just as we bring with us “clouds of glory” from the presence of God when we are born, if we embrace life and seek to perform “good work with [our] whole hearts” while we are here, we can return to God’s presence at the end of our life with “clouds of glory” and be prepared to dwell in that “spiritual land”.


Conclusion:

The concept of implied chiasmus is useful for identifying and understanding certain references authors make to other authors. By recognizing the implied structure of a reference, we can gain a deeper and more thorough understanding of an author’s intended meaning. Interestingly, this example from Stevenson is structurally a parallelism, but conceptually a chiasm, since it involves coming from and returning to God.

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