Navigation – Plan du site

AccueilNuméros77Special SectionHumbling FormMalcolm Lowry’s Humble Hypotypose...

Special Section
Humbling Form

Malcolm Lowry’s Humble Hypotyposes in Hear Us O Lord from Heaven Thy Dwelling Place (1961)

Xavier Le Brun
p. 123-141


Cet article a pour objet le recueil de nouvelles posthume de Malcolm Lowry, Hear Us O Lord from Heaven Thy Dwelling Place (1961), et la place qu’y occupe une figure de rhétorique traditionnellement associée à la tragédie et à l’épique, l’hypotypose. Celle-ci, communément définie comme « la description d’une scène ou d’un événement, conduite avec tant de vivacité qu’elle paraît au lecteur ou à l’auditeur prendre place immédiatement sous ses yeux » (John Carlos Rowe ; ma traduction), est employée par Lowry dans ses nouvelles de façon surprenante et originale. Bien qu’il n’évacue pas entièrement la grandiloquence hypotypotique, Lowry fait le choix de déterritorialiser la figure hors du cadre tragique et de la concilier avec les scènes de l’ordinaire que l’on trouve notamment dans “The Forest Path to the Spring” et ses évocations fugaces du monde naturel.

Haut de page

Texte intégral

1Based on Malcolm Lowry’s life with his wife Marjorie in the small settlement of Dollarton, British Columbia, “The Forest Path to the Spring” is often read as a celebration of the redemptive powers of a simple existence, lived in direct contact with nature. By embracing the cycle of the seasons—as well as the inner cycles of his own memory—and attaining “an ecological balance with the recurrent rhythms of the universe” (Foxcroft, Kaleidoscopic Vision 194), the anonymous narrator of the short story, or novella, progressively manages to exorcise and transcend the demons of his past life—a theme Nigel Foxcroft sees as “running through Malcolm Lowry’s later works” (Kaleidoscopic Vision 193). As such, “The Forest Path to the Spring,” which concludes the posthumous collection Hear Us O Lord from Heaven Thy Dwelling Place, is very much about a form of secular atonement and the happiness derived from living what the narrator and protagonist envisions as a humble life, connected and even exposed to the natural world, something which Catherine Delesalle regards as a “reverent attitude of humility combine[d] with sheer joy” (138).

2Although this initial understanding of humility in “The Forest Path” deserves to be assessed, I would like to suggest that the most decisive stage in Lowry’s aesthetics of humility—as displayed in “The Forest Path”—has to do with his treatment of the visual in relation to notions of genre and generic hybridity. Although the dramatisation of visual scenes in the story borrows from a set of techniques traditionally identified with the tragic and the sublime, such techniques—also present elsewhere in the collection—are deliberately refined and “humbled” throughout Hear Us O Lord. As I intend to argue, they are made to shed their classical flamboyance and conspicuousness so as to serve Lowry’s quest for simplicity and desire for (seemingly) unmediated sensory experience, a process culminating in the paradox of a vision made invisible. By incorporating elements identified with the epic and the tragic into the stories of Hear Us O Lord, and by progressively adapting them to his own needs, Lowry becomes involved in another paradox: the use of techniques favouring lengthy developments in a genre aiming for brevity. Initiated in the first story of the collection (“The Bravest Boat”), this counter-intuitive blend of concision and at times slowly-building momentum only reaches perfect balance in “The Forest Path,” a narrative which is precisely concerned with harmony and reconciliation.

  • 1 About time and cyclicality in Lowry’s œuvre, see for instance Grace. The role of the Tao, alluded (...)

3In line with Lowry’s cyclical approach to time, nature and experience in this story—but also in numerous other works, and most notably Under the Volcano1—this article will first briefly examine the relevance of humility (both at a thematic and a structural level) in “The Forest Path” before reverting back to two other stories from Hear Us O Lord, the analysis of which will provide the means to understand the final text of the collection in a new light. This movement back and forth will help bring out the different stages in Lowry’s complex treatment of vision as well as the exact nature of its connection to (and growing independence from) the topoi of tragedy.

From Humility to Tragedy

4About the modest cabin he and his wife inhabit in Eridanus—the fictionalised version of Lowry’s Dollarton—the protagonist of “The Forest Path to the Spring” affirms that “[i]t was simple and primitive. But what complexity must there have been in the thing itself, to withstand the elemental forces it had to withstand?” (Lowry 232). The squatters’ shacks on the beach, most of them owned by local fishermen, even come to embody the unobtrusive blending in with nature and the calm and serene vulnerability the protagonist aspires to:

Standing there, in defiance of eternity, and yet as if in humble answer to it, with their weathered sidings as much a part of the natural surroundings as a Shinto temple is of the Japanese landscape, why had these shacks come to represent something to me of an indefinable goodness, even a kind of greatness? And some shadow of the truth that was later to come to me, seemed to steal over my soul, the feeling of something that man had lost, of which these shacks and cabins, brave against the elements, but at the mercy of the destroyer, were the helpless yet stalwart symbol, of man’s hunger and need for beauty, for the stars and the sunrise. (232)

  • 2 This is suggested both in a figurative sense—“it seemed that we were in heaven, and that the world (...)

5The shacks, open as they are to every possible depredation, thus seem to reconcile greatness and humility, eternity and impermanence. And if Eridanus is truly heaven on earth,2 it is also a place of toil and labour, of hardships and anxieties. In the mind of the narrator, these aspects are not contradictory: genuine happiness is found in the midst of living conditions he describes as “poverty stricken and abject in the eyes of the world” (242). Until one of their neighbours reveals to the couple the presence of a nearby spring, water has to be fetched “by rowing to a spring about half a mile away” (237). And “when the tide was low the boat was grounded about a hundred feet from the waterfall on the shore, and you had to wrestle the barrel back from the creek over the ooze and through shallow water, sinking in the muck” (237). And yet, difficult as it seems to imagine even for the narrator, the chore, when looked back upon in retrospect, is said to have provided amusement to him and his wife (237). Although similar examples abound in the text, the frail shack the couple inhabit remains what is maybe the best expression of this very humble kind of heaven the story depicts: “who would think,” the narrator asks “to look at the place idly, with its ramshackle air, its sense of impermanence, of improvisation, that such a beauty of existence, such happiness could be possible there . . . ?” (274).

6“The Forest Path,” however, does not simply depict the joys and adversity of a humble life: it tends to mirror such humility within its own narrative framework. Notions of progress and suspense for instance, are superseded by an almost organic structure, in which details and information accumulate in a seemingly random fashion, like raindrops falling in a pond or leaves on the ground, so that the story grows and expands in keeping with the cycles of nature, as well as those of human time and memory. The central motif of fetching water from the spring, returned to on multiple occasions, enriched and complexified, thus serves as a catalyst around which different layers of time are allowed to progressively coalesce until the larger picture of the protagonist’s years in Eridanus finally comes into focus, and the earlier events, upon which so many others have piled up, are seen as though from a distance, or through shallow water.

  • 3 About the opera, the narrator reminisces: “It was partly in the whole-tone scale, like Wozzeck, par (...)

7At some point in “The Forest Path,” Lowry even seems to make explicit some of the principles guiding his composition. Towards the end of the story, the narrator, a former jazz musician, confesses to having written an opera, “[h]aunted” as he was “by the passionate desire to express [his] own happiness with [his] wife in Eridanus” (271). This work, which he aptly entitles The Forest Path to the Spring, of course shares a number of its characteristics with the frame story—same characters, events and themes, same ragtag aesthetics3 and overall intent—thus allowing for a metafictional “mise en abyme” of the text itself. Commenting on his method, the protagonist remarks: “I tried to write of human happiness in terms of enthusiasm and high seriousness usually reserved for catastrophe and tragedy” (271). If the mention of human happiness as the main focus of the work may seem evident, the rest of the phrase appears slightly less so—for readers may well wonder where one does find, in “The Forest Path,” this “high seriousness usually reserved for tragedy?” The tone of the story might be referred to here, as it certainly dwells on the circumstances of everyday life with a good deal of solemnity, but I would argue that there is more to the claim formulated by the protagonist of the story. More specifically, I want to suggest that the reference to seriousness, enthusiasm and tragedy is clarified when one turns to Lowry’s use of one particular stylistic element: hypotyposis.

Lowry and the Canons of Hypotyposis: “The Bravest Boat”

8Hypotyposis is traditionally defined as “the description of a scene or event with such vividness that it seems to be presented directly to the eyes of the reader or hearer” (Rowe 253). The figure of speech has its origins in classical rhetoric, with Quintilian’s Institutio Oratoria as one of its main sources. It was prominent in French classical drama and was one of the stylistic devices theorised upon by French mathematician and philosopher Bernard Lamy in his treatise on rhetoric, La Rhétorique ou l’art de parler (1675). In the Anglo-Saxon world, hypotyposis is more often discussed in connection with Immanuel Kant and his Critique of Judgement. In Kant’s thought, “[h]ypotyposis makes present to the senses something which is not within their reach . . . because it consists . . . of elements too abstract for sensory representation” (de Man 26). Kant’s borrowing from classical rhetoric thus enables him to explain how “abstract or general concepts are exhibited in vivid images or concrete experiences” (Tinguely 3). The essence of the figure, however, remains the same: to lay under the eyes, to make visible. As such, hypotyposis is of major interest to the study of Modernism in general, and of Lowry in particular, a writer in whose texts, according to Matthew Corrigan, “the main action tends to be sheer seeings: terrible encounters with the visible, as Conrad might put it” (424). Yet, before examining hypotyposis in “The Forest Path” and in other stories from Hear Us O Lord, it is necessary to reaffirm and clarify the link between hypotyposis and the tragic, as this will help understand how Lowry in fact subverts this classical figure of speech, so as to conform it to his own “humble” needs.

9At the origin of the association with the tragic is the vividness central to hypotyposis, something which ideally suits the representation of passions. As the scene represented is supposed to make a strong impression on the reader—now turned spectator—hypotyposis is often the locus of a display of emotions. Christine Noille-Clauzade lists cruelty and tears as its main subjects of representation, respectively eliciting horror and pity (14), while Rodolphe Gasché—himself taking his cue from Henri Morier—mentions scenes of collective distress like battles, tempests, earthquakes, shipwrecks or epidemics (129). In these descriptions, visually-oriented and fraught with powerful emotions, humanity is antagonised either by nature or destiny. It is pitted against forces that overpower it, so that hypotyposis naturally leans towards the tragic and the sublime. Lowry himself was not oblivious to this tradition. In “The Bravest Boat,” the story which opens Hear Us O Lord—just as “The Forest Path” concludes it—hypotyposis is used to elicit fear and pity, as the two characters, Sigurd and Astrid, reminisce upon the shared anecdote of a toy boat that Sigurd had put out to sea as a child and which then went on to sail the ocean for twelve long years before Astrid finally found it.

10The description of the boat’s voyage at sea, and of the deadly perils it rose above, is expressly characterised as a vision experienced by the two characters, a fictional scenario they rehearse together and whose evocative power is such that it encroaches upon their immediate environment and obtrudes on their actual field of vision. This is made explicit through the notations that frame the hypotyposis itself: “before the lovers’ eyes still sailed that tiny boat” (Lowry 22; emphasis added) and “[s]uddenly across their vision a squirrel ran up a tree” (23; emphasis added). In the sustained and exceptionally visual description that comes in-between, and of which we may quote but a fragment here, the emphasis is laid on the vulnerability of the boat, whose sheer size, as well as its identification with the world of childhood, make it all the more pathetic:

Ah, its absolute loneliness . . . with the wind springing up and blowing the spray across the sea like rain, like a vision of creation, blowing the little boat as it climbed the highlands into the skies, from which sizzled cobalt lightnings, and then sank down into the abyss, but already was climbing again, while the whole sea crested with foam like lambs’ wool went furling off to leeward, the whole vast moon-driven expanse like the pastures and valleys and snow-capped ranges of a Sierra Madre in delirium, in ceaseless motion, rising and falling, and the little boat rising, and falling into a paralyzing sea of white drifting fire and smoking spume by which it seemed overwhelmed (22).

11From a stylistic point of view, the prevalence of the -ing form, as well as the polysyndetic accumulation of coordinated clauses, create the impression of relentless movement so strongly felt in the extract, as if the scene were actually unfolding under the eyes of the reader/viewer. The treatment of space also contributes to the visual impact of the description, as Lowry immerses us into a three-dimensional space structured around a vertical axis, and in which upward and downward movements, connecting “the highlands” with “the abyss,” rapidly alternate, or even appear to coincide in one dizzying convulsion—“a Sierra Madre in delirium,” indeed—so swift is their succession.

12In terms of the situation it depicts, as well as the affects it stirs up, Lowry’s text is here surprisingly close to the canons of hypotyposis and seems merely to offer a variation on the trope of the ship caught in a tempest. The waves are compared to mountains in what is almost a stock metaphor, intended to arouse fear and pity, the two passions associated with tragedy. The disproportion between the boat—not an actual ship, but a mere toy—and the towering waves, by pitting the very small against the immeasurable, draws on the sense of the sublime. If the extract differs from similar scenes, it is mainly in the choice of its “protagonist.” For the ship braving the elements here is not manned by sailors, over whose frail lives we might anguish—it is but a piece of wood, “ten inches long” (19) and carrying a note from the child Sigurd. In fact, its destruction would have amounted to no tragic loss, except of course in the eyes of the child who put it at sea and of the two adults whose destinies it permitted to connect. In this respect, while Lowry’s use of hypotyposis in “The Bravest Boat” is still very much indebted to its traditional function and draws on the same emotional palette, there can already be felt in it a form of appropriation, which will be given full rein to in the rest of the collection.

“Elephant and Colosseum,” or the Humbling of Hypotyposis

  • 4 “Les faits [que l’hypotypose] mentionne sont redondants par rapport à la stricte avancée de l’acti (...)

13In fact, Hear Us O Lord unfolds as if Lowry had deliberately chosen to present hypotyposis in its almost unaltered classical purity (“The Bravest Boat”), before progressively bending the figure to his own artistic vision. In stories such as “Elephant and Colosseum” or “Present Estate of Pompeii,” hypotyposis is employed in a mock-heroic rather than a tragic or epic fashion. As a result, its “melodramatic pompousness” (Noille-Clauzade 14; my translation)4 is toned down, if not entirely debunked. What is at stake then, is the process of humbling hypotyposis, of cutting it off from its classical decorum, so that by the time we reach “The Forest Path to the Spring,” it has been reconciled with the most simple and delicate reality, and Lowry is indeed able “to write of human happiness in terms . . . usually reserved for catastrophe and tragedy” (Lowry 271).

  • 5 As Hear Us O Lord was published posthumously, it is impossible to exclude that Lowry might have int (...)

14“Elephant and Colosseum,” the fourth story out of seven in Hear Us O Lord, and thus the mathematical centre of the collection,5 is representative of the intermediary stage in this process. Hypotyposis is still associated with a form of epic momentum, but this time Lowry’s intent is mainly parodic. The protagonist of the story, Kennish Drumgold Cosnahan, is a Manx writer who lives in America and whose novel has been recently translated into Italian; he has thus come to Rome to meet his publishers there. This is a thrilling perspective for Cosnahan, and it reminds him of the exaltation he felt at the outset of a similar stay in Paris:

So it had been, in some measure, he allowed himself to remember, in Paris, where, wrongly directed to his French publishers at the top of some fifteen flights of stairs without an elevator, upon each floor of which, no sooner had he put a light on than the lights of all the floors savagely went off, until groggy with weariness, and afraid of falling seventy feet into a courtyard in the dark, for there was no railing, he had knocked and knocked at a door from behind which came a sound of crime, or stifled laughter, to ask for help, whereupon five minutes of darkness later that could be compared only to the anguished moments of a mountaineer caught in a storm upon an unnegotiable overhang, all the lights in the building went on again with a crisp crash, whistles wailed, and fifteen armed and bewhiskered gendarmes out of Zola came clattering and clanking up the stone stairs, arrested him and took him away in a Black Maria, where, soon discovering a common interest in rugby football, and the gendarmes that Cosnahan had once played scrum-half against the Racing Club de France, they all became the firmest of friends in no time. At last Cosnahan not only had felt a certain reluctance to leave the Bastille of the Seventh Arrondissement, which seemed to him much cheerier than his hotel room, but had decided that in no country in the world was it such a privilege to be arrested. (137)

15The hypotyposis itself, which extends up to Cosnahan’s arrest at the hands of the friendly gendarmes, almost starts out as an anecdote or a remark made in passing (“So it had been”), deprived of any outstanding visual dimension. Circumstances accumulate (the absence of an elevator, the sudden darkness resulting from the lights of all the floors going off at once) until a picture of the scene progressively forms in the mind of the reader, and the anecdote becomes an astonishing “tableau”: the picture of a man suspended over a terrifying abyss and suddenly besieged by an army of French gendarmes. Lowry’s intricate syntax contributes a great deal to the formation of this tableau, with the flow of the winding sentence losing itself in a profusion of entangled subordinate clauses, suggestive of the state of utter confusion experienced by the protagonist. Vision is even sustained by sound, in a synesthetic interplay of the senses, as the unexpected and brutal return of light (and thus of vision) coincides with a cacophonic outburst marked by the use of alliteration (“crisp crash, whistles wailed”, “came clattering and clanking up the stone stairs”).

  • 6 “L’hypotypose . . . est . . . une mise en relief du discours par un passage de la signification à l (...)

16Finally, the same range of metaphors as in “The Bravest Boat” is employed here: Cosnahan is a mountaineer (just as the sea was “a Sierra Madre in delirium”) caught in a tempest reminiscent of the one assailing the ship in the previous story. Space is thus structured around the same vertical axis, a dizzying pit in which the protagonist is about to be plunged like the damned into the circles of hell (a recurrent motif in Lowry, found for instance in chapter 7 of Under the Volcano, with Laruelle’s picture, Los Borrachones, or with the barranca itself, the ominous ravine which literally runs through the novel). The result is an astoundingly vivid description in which the spectacular prevails over the purely informative or argumentative functions of language.6

  • 7 “[P]our Lowry, le jeu consiste justement à ne pas suivre les règles d’un genre unique, de la tragé (...)

17The effect produced, however, is entirely different from that of the tempest scene in “The Bravest Boat”: from a sublime evocation of helplessness, tinged with mild tragedy, we have stepped into downright comedy. For Cosnahan is not an actual mountaineer risking his life “upon an unnegotiable overhang,” but a grown man who fails to even find the door to his publisher’s and remains grotesquely trapped on top of a dark staircase until he is arrested for no apparent reason. The dramatic potential of hypotyposis is thus put at the service of a mock-heroic scene, in which the misfortunes of poor Cosnahan are recounted with the grandiloquence usually reserved to classical epics. We are here in the midst of what Cosnahan himself, when commenting upon the appearance of the elephant later on in the story, labels “that marvellous juxtaposition of the grotesque and the sublime” (161). As Christine Vandamme observes about Under the Volcano, “for Lowry, the point is not to follow the rules of a single genre—namely tragedy—but to follow those of multiple apparently contradictory genres” (60; my translation).7 In other words, Lowry privileges a carnivalesque perspective over any notion of generic purity, and in so doing he displaces—or reterritorialises—hypotyposis. If, as suggested above, the mock-heroic tone of “Elephant and Colosseum” represents the intermediary stage in this process, “The Forest Path to the Spring” undoubtedly marks its culmination.

Spectacles of the Invisible in “The Forest Path to the Spring”

18In the final story of Hear Us O Lord, there is no longer any form of parody involved, nor any need to explicitly humble hypotyposis. The rhetorical figure is still being used, but in most cases it has become unobtrusive, almost invisible, as in this example from one of the final paragraphs of “The Forest Path”:

But last night I had seen something new; my wife had called me out of bed to the open window to see what she first thought was a school of little fishes breaking the still water just beneath, where the tide was high under the house. Then we saw that the whole dark water was covered with bright expanding phosphorescent circles. Only when my wife felt the warm mild rain on her naked shoulder did she realize it was raining. They were perfect expanding circles of light, first tiny circles bright as a coin, then becoming expanding rings growing fainter and fainter, while as the rain fell into the phosphorescent water each raindrop expanded into a ripple that was translated into light. (282)

  • 8 “la dimension quasi-épique du voyage du bateau.”

19Although the sea, and water in general, plays a major part in both, it seems difficult to imagine two scenes as diametrically opposed as the tempest from “The Bravest Boat” and this evocation of raindrops falling on water, full of silence and serenity. The “quasi-epic dimension of the ship’s voyage” (Maisonnat 209; my translation)8 has been replaced with a sense of quiet contemplation. The protagonist is no longer opposed to the natural world, on the verge of complete annihilation, but seems on the contrary to be reunited with it, as the narrator and his wife are absorbed into the scene through their gazes, as well as their other senses (and in particular the sense of touch, with the rain falling on the skin of the narrator’s wife). Instead of dramatic tension and overwhelming emotions, we find curiosity, surprise and wonder. Vision itself is dramatized, through the polyptoton of “seen,” “see” and “saw,” the interplay of light and darkness, and the mesmerising movement of the ripples, rhythmically expanding and fading away.

  • 9 “un condensé d’essentiel à peine dicible.”

20What Lowry manages to capture is not so much the circumstances of the event as its pure visual unfolding, “the condensed and barely expressible essence of things” (Drösdal-Levillain 92; my translation)9—hypotyposis stripped to the bone. And just “as the rain itself [is] water from the sea . . . raised to heaven . . . and falling again into the sea” (Lowry 282), the dualistic opposition between the scene and the viewers is overcome as the couple, standing under the rain, is comprised into the general tableau they witness. In a perfect illustration of Merleau-Ponty’s chiasmatic fusion of subject and object into the reciprocating gaze of the world, the narrator and his wife come into the picture—become visible—through their observing the scene:

As soon as I see, it is necessary that the vision (as is so well indicated by the double meaning of the word) be doubled with a complementary vision or with another vision: myself seen from without, such as another would see me, installed in the midst of the visible, occupied in considering it from a certain spot. . . . he who sees cannot possess the visible unless he is possessed by it, unless he is of it” (Merleau-Ponty 134-35; emphasis in the original).

  • 10 “[S]ince the seer is caught up in what he sees, it is still himself he sees: there is a fundamental (...)

21Hypotyposis thus becomes the vehicle for an integral form of vision, a spectacle that is also a spectator, that is also a spectacle…10 Whereas with previous instances of the figure the object of the vision unambiguously occupied centre stage, Lowry’s handling of hypotyposis in “The Forest Path” often testifies to a deeper degree of complexity and humility, as it readily acknowledges the dependence of the vision upon the viewer, and vice versa.

22Earlier in the story, we encounter another, slightly more dramatic hypotyposis:

  • 11 Brocklebank dock and the Birkenhead docks are part of the port of Liverpool. Lowry himself grew up (...)
  • 12 Herzogin Cecilie was a German windjammer launched in 1902.

We were speaking together of these things [the first signs of spring] that evening when suddenly we stopped talking at an apparition of terrifying beauty: in the darkness, in the northeast sky, within a circular frame, appeared the crosstrees of a windjammer on fire: the blazing crosstrees of a windjammer in port, no sails, just the masts, the blazing yards: a whole blazing Birkenhead Brocklebank dockside11 of fiery Herzogin Ceciles:12 or as if some ancient waterfront scene of conflagration in neighboring old windjammered Port Boden had been transported out of the past, in miniature, into the sky: now, to the right within the miniature frame, turned blackened crumbling yards: and now one lone silvery mast, ash-gray, with its naked canted yards, a multiple tilted cross, chording it perpendicularly, sinking below the circular frame, ascending, of blazing gold; we laughed out of sheer joy, for it was just the full moon rising clear of the pines behind the mountains, and often it must do this, but who looked at it? Who could see it? Could anyone else see it? I had never seen it. Why had God given this to us? (257)

23Unlike the vision of the phosphorescent ripples on the water, this scene is explicitly marked as an extraordinary, and even a supernatural one. And though it involves a ship, as in “The Bravest Boat,” the tiny man-made toy of the earlier story, tossed about by the waves, is now a majestic windjammer ablaze in the night sky, so that a different, gothic kind of sublime (evocative of a “terrifying beauty”) prevails here. The vocabulary is highly visual, even self-consciously artistic, and the apparition, delineated by a “circular frame,” is treated much as a picture, or rather a “miniature.” The strangeness of this “apparition”—a word in itself denoting a ghostly quality—is reinforced, in the course of the hypotyposis, by the use of different proper nouns, whose combined evocation has a defamiliarizing effect, especially as Lowry purposely employs them in unusual grammatical positions (Birkenhead and Brocklebank as modifiers in a compound noun, Herzogin Cecilie as a common noun in the plural) and hammers the names into the mind of the reader in strong trochaic and dactylic rhythms, reinforced by the alliterations of /b/ and /k/ (“a whole blazing Birkenhead Brocklebank dockside”).

24Given this deliberate effect and the whole dramatic turn of the ghostly apparition, we might wonder whether Lowry has not reverted back to his earlier, more traditional use of hypotyposis. But of course, the entire scene is an illusion: for there never was any ship in the sky, its masts on fire, but only “the full moon rising clear of the pines behind the mountains.” The protagonists are deceived by a simple trick, and rather than regretting the return of the ordinary within their lives, they laugh good-heartedly, even “out of sheer joy,” at their mistake. In other words, hypotyposis no longer rests on an all-powerful form of vision but, on the contrary, on its fallible and unreliable nature. From an instrument of mastery, it is converted into a vehicle for the joyous acceptance of human imperfection. Moreover, the end of the passage emphasises both the relative banality of the phenomenon (the full moon rising behind the mountains) and the curious invisibility affecting it: “often it must do this, but who looked at it? Who could see it? Could anyone else see it? I had never seen it.” The extraordinary character of the spectacle lies less in the thing that is seen than in the seeing itself, which is most infrequent and occurs only by chance. In a striking reversal, Lowry thus comes to employ hypotyposis not to picture what in itself is endowed with a dramatic quality, but to reveal the invisible—that which usually escapes vision for want of potential spectators.

Making Vision Invisible: Diatyposis

25In fact, hypotyposis most often goes unnoticed in “The Forest Path.” Although vision is disseminated throughout the story, with the narrator frequently referring to particular sights or commenting in visual terms on the weather, the seasons or the topography of Eridanus and its surroundings, such evocations often remain very brief and do not stand out from the rest of the text as hypotyposes usually do. Nevertheless, one cannot help but wonder whether these seemingly inconsequential comments are not linked in some way with the figure Lowry keeps refining throughout Hear Us O Lord, and whether their apparent lack of significance might not mask the writer’s last experiment with a humble form of hypotyposis. The “vignettes,” or visual fragments in question, scattered across “The Forest Path,” often appear to be interrelated, with Lowry using them to progressively develop certain themes or imagistic networks. For instance, the vision of the pines detaching themselves over the waxing moon (and initially mistaken for the masts of a blazing ship) is anticipated by a similar sight occurring as early as the first paragraphs of the story:

Often all you could see in the whole world of the dawn was a huge sun with two pines silhouetted in it, like a great blaze behind a Gothic cathedral. And at night the same pines would write a Chinese poem on the moon. Wolves howled from the mountains. On the path to the spring the mountains appeared and disappeared through the trees. (215-16)

  • 13 “la diatypose n’est que l’ébauche d’une hypotypose, et suivant la perspective que l’on veut adopter (...)

26The visual concentration of these few sentences, relayed by the two metaphors of the Gothic cathedral and the Chinese poem, is enhanced by the sobriety of the annotations—each sight being “sketched” rather than accurately painted—, by the limited but meaningful vocabulary (repetition of “pines” and “mountains,” polyptoton of “appeared and disappeared”) and by the paratactic style prevailing in the last two sentences, separating them almost like the lines in a poem. And indeed, this concision, along with the evocative force of the images, turn Lowry’s brief annotations into the Chinese poem he evokes himself, or maybe into a prose haiku. Another term that could be used to label this cutting visual writing of Lowry’s, and that would be more in keeping with the literary tradition we have been alluding to until now, is that of diatyposis. The difference between hypotyposis and diatyposis is one of length: whereas the former is typically sustained over one or several paragraphs and piles image upon image in a large and dynamic tableau, the latter is on the side of concision, with certain diatyposes being limited to only one word, endowed with a strong visual quality (Le Bozec 28). Accordingly, Yves Le Bozec defines diatyposis as “only a sketch for a hypotyposis and, depending on the perspective one chooses to adopt, either an aborted figure or the promise of the figure to come” (28; my translation).13

27Defined in those terms, diatyposis is mainly a negative figure, marked by the absence of its corollary, hypotyposis. Its widespread use in “The Forest Path,” however, never points to the lack of larger, more comprehensive visual descriptions. Instead, I would argue that diatyposis represents the most refined stage in Lowry’s treatment of vision. Resorting to these compact vignettes, which are not as easily discernible as hypotyposes, he is able to orchestrate a dissemination of the visual throughout the story, so as to make us see—as Conrad would have it—without the interposition of an overly conspicuous rhetoric. In an interesting paradox, diatyposis is vision made invisible—in other words, vision conveyed with as little insistence as possible placed on the act of conveying it. The overall feeling, then, as fragments are progressively encountered throughout the story, is of a spontaneous overflow of the visual—to paraphrase Wordsworth.

28Other examples of diatyposes in “The Forest Path” include the variations on the sight of the Shell refinery, which faces the narrator’s shack on the other side of the inlet, so that he remarks upon “the red votive candle of the burning oil wastes flickering ceaselessly all night before the gleaming open cathedral of the oil refinery—,” (226) and later observes, in a parenthesis that contributes to the haiku-like brevity and effacement of the remark, “([i]n fact I was even fond of the evil oil refinery itself that at night now, as the war demanded more and more lubrication, was often a blaze of lights like a battleship in harbor on the Admiral’s birthday.)” (256). The cathedral metaphor, which recurs in the first of these evocations, suggests a bridge between the refinery and the sun and pines image, as if the former were progressively fused into the natural world which the narrator so strongly cherishes, something which is confirmed a few pages later when he confesses to his growing fondness for the industrial building. The second “vignette,” or diatyposis, with its battleship metaphor and its evocation of “a blaze of lights,” in turn appears thematically connected with the optical illusion of the blazing ship, showing how Lowry’s dense web of images is spun through a number of isolated visual fragments. Disseminating the visual, Lowry is able to weave together coherent patterns and to progressively impress them on the reader’s mind. He thus uses diatyposis not as an aborted attempt at larger scale tableaux, but as a powerful alternative to the more prominent and less pliable figure of hypotyposis.

  • 14 “un besoin irrépressible de regarder, d’imaginer, de se déplacer dans un autre lieu rendu parfaitem (...)
  • 15 See for instance Tiessen, “Malcolm Lowry and the Cinema” or, more recently, “Spectatorial Bodies.” (...)

29The importance of looking, or gazing in Lowry has long been remarked. In Under the Volcano, “[t]he first thing Laruelle offers his visitors is not a drink but a pair of binoculars. . . . Two policemen peer east and west from a watchtower . . . spies and spiders in dark glasses are posted everywhere around the town” (Paccaud-Huguet 148). Commenting on “Present Estate of Pompeii,” Pascale Tollance points to the protagonist’s “irrepressible need to look, to imagine, to translate himself to another place which is being made wholly present through its projected image” (Tollance, “Le stereopticon” 188; my translation).14 Additionally, numerous studies have been devoted to the role of cinema—that quintessential medium of vision—in Lowry’s aesthetics.15 And yet, the writer’s attitude to vision in Hear Us O Lord is not easily pinned down or categorised. Confronting himself to the tradition of hypotyposis, he progressively deterritorialises this classical figure of speech away from its tragic and epic background, in an attempt to reconcile it with the fleeting, the ephemeral, and even the invisible—in other words, with these mundane phenomena, such as raindrops on water, which are not as readily paid attention to as the clamorous topoi of hypotyposis.

30Yet, beyond casting light on the minute and the ordinary, Hear Us O Lord, and in particular “The Forest Path to the Spring,” also involves a reflection on the dramatisation of the visual. With diatyposis, and its extended use in the final story of the collection, Lowry manages the feat of making vision itself invisible. In a humble gesture of effacement in front of nature, life and memory, his rhetorical technique of emphasising the visual has developed into a medium so inconspicuous, so unobtrusively potent, that only the chiasm of image and viewer, vision and seer, becomes manifest, not the discourse that sets it alive. Thereby, Lowry is indeed able to accommodate the “high seriousness usually reserved for catastrophe and tragedy” he mentions in “The Forest Path” with the humble evocation of “human happiness”—a synthesis that well befits the story of a man’s reconciliation with his past and with the world.

  • 16 The expression is Lowry’s, who, upon completion of “Ghostkeeper,” wrote to his publisher Albert Ers (...)

31Moreover, with the inclusion of hypotyposes in Hear Us O Lord seemingly undergoing a form of questioning and refining as the reader nears the end of the collection, one cannot help but notice how a figure of speech so strongly associated with the lengthy visual developments and sweeping tableaux of tragedy and the epic is so skilfully made to espouse the inner logic of the short story, and in particular the brevity that defines it. While at the outset of the collection “The Bravest Boat” maintains a sharp tension between the momentum of hypotyposis and the concision of the narrative itself, such tension is progressively deflated—first in the mock-heroic description of Cosnahan’s assent in “Elephant and Colosseum,” then in the “invisible vision” that so strongly imbues Lowry’s poetic and stylistic search in “The Forest Path.” The easing of the tension between brevity (short story) and protraction (hypotyposis) can also be attributed to the sheer length of the latter story, often described as a novella. Ironically, Lowry’s visual writing achieves its highest degree of condensation in a rather “long” short story,16 thereby exemplifying the contradictory drives towards expansion and concision that shape his short fiction. While for Tony Bareham, “[t]ime and time again Lowry begins with something that looks like a short story but uses it only as a means of expanding his ideas into some other form” (78), “The Forest Path” evinces a more complex dynamic, one of interdependent growth and contraction, of (textual) accumulation and (stylistic) paring down, so that Lowry’s humble hypotyposes actually become the means to achieve brevity within an expanding medium and thus, if one may say, to put the short in short fiction.

Haut de page


Bareham, Tony. Malcolm Lowry. Basingstoke and London: Macmillan, 1989. Print.

Corrigan, Matthew. “Malcolm Lowry: The Phenomenology of Failure.” Boundary 2 3.2 (Winter 1975): 407-42. Print.

Cox, Ailsa. “Soundscapes in Lunar Caustic.” Malcolm Lowry’s Poetics of Space. Eds. Richard J. Lane and Miguel Mota. Ottawa: U of Ottawa P, 2016. 113-27. Print.

de Man, Paul. “The Epistemology of Metaphor.” Critical Inquiry 5.1 (Autumn 1978): 13-30. Print.

Delesalle, Catherine. “Dwelling In-Between: Rituals and Jazz as Reconcilable Opposites in ‘The Forest Path to the Spring.’” Malcolm Lowry’s Poetics of Space. Eds. Richard J. Lane and Miguel Mota. Ottawa: U of Ottawa P, 2016. 129-43. Print.

Drösdal-Levillain, Annick. “La dimension du sacré dans ‘The Forest Path to the Spring.’” La Fureur et la Grâce : Lectures de Malcolm Lowry. Ed. Josiane Paccaud-Huguet. Paris: Lettres modernes Minard, 2017. 85-103. Print.

Foxcroft, Nigel H. “From Russia to Eridanus: The Taoist Psychogeographic Ecosphere of Malcolm Lowry.” The IAFOR Journal of Literature and Librarianship 2.2 (Autumn 2013): 69-87. Print.

---. The Kaleidoscopic Vision of Malcolm Lowry: Souls and Shamans. Lanham: Lexington Books, 2019. Print.

Gasché, Rodolphe. “L’hypotypose ou Kant et la rhétorique.” 1990. Trans. Martin Rueff. Po&sie 2.148 (2014): 122-38. Print.

Grace, Sherrill E. “The Creative Process: An Introduction to Time and Space in Malcolm Lowry’s Fiction.” Studies in Canadian Literature/Études en littérature Canadienne 2.1 (1977): 61-69. Print.

Lane, Richard J. and Miguel Mota, eds. Malcolm Lowry’s Poetics of Space. Ottawa: U of Ottawa P, 2016. Print.

Le Bozec, Yves. “Les frontières de l’hypotypose : Le songe d’Athalie et la prophétie de Joad.” L’Information grammaticale 100 (January 2004): 26-30. Print.

Lowry, Malcolm. Hear Us O Lord from Heaven Thy Dwelling Place. New York: Lippincott, 1961. Print.

Maisonnat, Claude. “De la nouvelle au script : Voix et regard dans ‘The Bravest Boat.’” La Fureur et la Grâce : Lectures de Malcolm Lowry. Ed. Josiane Paccaud-Huguet. Paris : Lettres modernes Minard, 2017. 203-22. Print.

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. The Visible and the Invisible. Ed. Claude Lefort. Trans. Alphonso Lingis. Evanston: Northwestern UP, 1968. Print.

Noille-Clauzade, Christine. “La figure de la description dans la théorie rhétorique classique.” Pratiques : linguistique, littérature, didactique 109-110 (June 2001): 5-14. Print.

Paccaud-Huguet, Josiane, ed. La Fureur et la Grâce : Lectures de Malcolm Lowry. Paris: Lettres modernes Minard, 2017. Print.

---. “The Expressionist Gaze in the Psychic Space of Under the Volcano.” Malcolm Lowry’s Poetics of Space. Eds. Richard J. Lane and Miguel Mota. Ottawa: U of Ottawa P, 2016. 145-58. Print.

Rowe, John Carlos. “James’s Rhetoric of the Eye: Re-Marking the Impression.” Criticism 24.3 (Summer 1982): 233-60. Print.

Tiessen, Paul. “Malcolm Lowry and the Cinema.” Malcolm Lowry: The Man and his Work. Ed. George Woodcock. Vancouver: U of British Columbia P, 1971. 133-43. Print.

---. “Spectatorial Bodies and the Everyday Spaces of Cinema.” Malcolm Lowry’s Poetics of Space. Eds. Richard J. Lane and Miguel Mota. Ottawa: U of Ottawa P, 2016. 87-100. Print.

Tinguely, Jospeh. “The Implicit Affection Between Kantian Judgment and Aristotelian Rhetoric.” Philosophy & Rhetoric 48.1 (2015): 1-25. Print.

Tollance, Pascale. “‘A Ghostly Ballet’ : L’étrange chorégraphie de ‘Ghostkeeper.’” La Fureur et la Grâce : Lectures de Malcolm Lowry. Ed. Josiane Paccaud-Huguet. Paris : Lettres modernes Minard, 2017. 147-63. Print.

---. “Le stereopticon de Fairhaven : Dédoublement et discordance dans ‘Present Estate of Pompeii.’” La Fureur et la Grâce : Lectures de Malcolm Lowry. Ed. Josiane Paccaud-Huguet. Paris : Lettres modernes Minard, 2017. 183-202. Print.

Vandamme, Christine. “L’Intertextualité dans Under the Volcano : Jeu de bascule entre mécanique tragique et retournement carnavalesque.” La Fureur et la Grâce : Lectures de Malcolm Lowry. Ed. Josiane Paccaud-Huguet. Paris : Lettres modernes Minard, 2017. 53-72. Print.

Haut de page


1 About time and cyclicality in Lowry’s œuvre, see for instance Grace. The role of the Tao, alluded to in “The Forest Path,” might also be stressed in this regard, as “the law of circular, or cyclical, movement, . . . in the Taoist philosophy, governs both human beings and water and is illustrated by the yin/yang circle” (Foxcroft, “From Russia to Eridanus” 77).

2 This is suggested both in a figurative sense—“it seemed that we were in heaven, and that the world outside—so portentous in its prescriptions for man of imaginary needs that were in reality its damnation—was hell” (242-43)—and in a literal acceptation, since the settlement derives its name from a sunken ship and, through this intermediary, from the constellation Eridanus—a parallel which is repeatedly alluded to throughout the story.

3 About the opera, the narrator reminisces: “It was partly in the whole-tone scale, like Wozzeck, partly jazz, partly folksongs or songs my wife sang, even old hymns, such as Hear Us O Lord from Heaven Thy Dwelling Place. I even used cannons like Frère Jacques to express the ships’ engines or the rhythms of eternity” (271).

4 “Les faits [que l’hypotypose] mentionne sont redondants par rapport à la stricte avancée de l’action, ils surchargent le fil de l’histoire d’une enflure mélodramatique” (emphasis in the original).

5 As Hear Us O Lord was published posthumously, it is impossible to exclude that Lowry might have intended further alterations in the order of the stories or even in the exact list of stories included. For instance, Pascale Tollance notes that “Ghostkeeper,” later published by Margerie Bonner Lowry in Psalms and Songs (1975), was initially to have been comprised in Hear Us Lord (Tollance, “‘A Ghostly Ballet’” 147-48).

6 “L’hypotypose . . . est . . . une mise en relief du discours par un passage de la signification à la visualisation, de la démonstration à la monstration, de l’argumentatif au spectaculaire, bref, du persuasif au mimétique, du rhétorique au poétique” (Noille-Clauzade 13).

7 “[P]our Lowry, le jeu consiste justement à ne pas suivre les règles d’un genre unique, de la tragédie en l’occurrence, mais de multiples genres à priori incompatibles.”

8 “la dimension quasi-épique du voyage du bateau.”

9 “un condensé d’essentiel à peine dicible.”

10 “[S]ince the seer is caught up in what he sees, it is still himself he sees: there is a fundamental narcissism ofall vision.” (Merleau-Ponty 139)

11 Brocklebank dock and the Birkenhead docks are part of the port of Liverpool. Lowry himself grew up in the Wirral peninsula, opposite Liverpool.

12 Herzogin Cecilie was a German windjammer launched in 1902.

13 “la diatypose n’est que l’ébauche d’une hypotypose, et suivant la perspective que l’on veut adopter, une figure avortée, ou bien la promesse de la figure à venir.”

14 “un besoin irrépressible de regarder, d’imaginer, de se déplacer dans un autre lieu rendu parfaitement présent grâce à l’image de l’ailleurs qu’on projette.”

15 See for instance Tiessen, “Malcolm Lowry and the Cinema” or, more recently, “Spectatorial Bodies.” Ailsa Cox observes that Lowry’s “love of cinema was grounded in the silent days, especially the work of the German expressionists, including, as well as Murnau’s Sunrise, Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)” (114).

16 The expression is Lowry’s, who, upon completion of “Ghostkeeper,” wrote to his publisher Albert Erskine that he had composed “another long short story” (qtd. in Tollance, “‘A Ghostly Ballet’” 147). Pascale Tollance offers a compelling reflection on the apparent lack of brevity in Lowry’s short fiction and on his concomitant aesthetics of fragmentation (“Le stereopticon” 183).

Haut de page

Pour citer cet article

Référence papier

Xavier Le Brun, « Malcolm Lowry’s Humble Hypotyposes in Hear Us O Lord from Heaven Thy Dwelling Place (1961) »Journal of the Short Story in English, 77 | 2021, 123-141.

Référence électronique

Xavier Le Brun, « Malcolm Lowry’s Humble Hypotyposes in Hear Us O Lord from Heaven Thy Dwelling Place (1961) »Journal of the Short Story in English [En ligne], 77 | Autumn 2021, mis en ligne le 01 décembre 2023, consulté le 21 mai 2024. URL :

Haut de page


Xavier Le Brun

Xavier Le Brun is a Lecturer at the University of Angers and a member of the CIRPaLL (Centre Interdisciplinaire de Recherche sur les Patrimoines en Lettres et Langues). He specialises in modernist literature, short forms, self and interiority in the modernist period, and the interactions between philosophy and literature. He has published articles about Virginia Woolf and Malcolm Lowry in peer-reviewed journals such as Études britanniques contemporaines, the Journal of the Short Story in English, or Image [&] Narrative, and has contributed chapters to Excavating Modernity: Physical, Temporal and Psychological Strata in Literature, 1900-1930 (Routledge, 2019) and La littérature et la vie (Classiques Garnier, 2018). He is associate editor of the Journal of the Short Story in English.

Articles du même auteur

Haut de page

Droits d’auteur


Le texte seul est utilisable sous licence CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. Les autres éléments (illustrations, fichiers annexes importés) sont « Tous droits réservés », sauf mention contraire.

Haut de page
Rechercher dans OpenEdition Search

Vous allez être redirigé vers OpenEdition Search