I Grant You Ample Leave

"I grant you ample leave
To use the hoary formula 'I am'
Naming the emptiness where thought is not;
But fill the void with definition, 'I'
Will be no more a datum than the words
You link false inference with, the 'Since' & 'so'
That, true or not, make up the atom-whirl.
Resolve your 'Ego', it is all one web
With vibrant ether clotted into worlds:
Your subject, self, or self-assertive 'I'
Turns nought but object, melts to molecules,
Is stripped from naked Being with the rest
Of those rag-garments named the Universe.
Or if, in strife to keep your 'Ego' strong
You make it weaver of the etherial light,
Space, motion, solids & the dream of Time —
Why, still 'tis Being looking from the dark,
The core, the centre of your consciousness,
That notes your bubble-world: sense, pleasure, pain,
What are they but a shifting otherness,
Phantasmal flux of moments? —"

Writing Ideas

  1. Circle all the scientific or pseudo-scientific words (like the pre-scientific “ether”) in Eliot’s poem. Use the same set of words to build a poem about what, in the 21st century, the definition of an individual—an “I”—is.
  2. Enclosed in quotation marks, “I Grant You Ample Leave” is considered by some to be a fragment from a longer Eliot poem. In any case, the poem is presented as a speech from a character. Who do you think this character is? Who is he or she talking to? Write a poem that either continues this character’s utterance, or responds to it as a listener (it may be helpful to think about the name of the longer poem Eliot possibly cut this from: “A College Breakfast-Party”).

Discussion Questions

  1. As the guide to this poem suggests, Eliot was working out some complicated ideas and arguments about human consciousness. Why write a poem about scientific and philosophical issues? How does Eliot write her poem, and why might she write the way she does?
  2. Is this poem an argument, a hypothesis, or a question? Try writing the poem’s lines as prose. Then re-break the sentences into different lines (you might try a variety, long or short). How does the information or rhetorical position of the poem depend or not depend on the shape of its lines?
  3. Try reading other poems by Eliot and other Victorian poets such as Alfred, Lord Tennyson, Robert Browning, and Christina Rossetti, to name just three. What are the characteristics of verse from this period? How does “I Grant You Ample Leave” sound, look, or otherwise resemble other Victorian poems? 

Teaching Tips

  1. Have your students begin to explore the ways in which science and poetry are in dialogue. Use Eliot’s poem as a starting point: perhaps reading the poem guide together, discuss the ways in which this poem participates in the debates over consciousness, the waning of religious feeling, and the rise of experimental science that marked Eliot’s day. Gather some examples of more contemporary poetic engagements with science, for example Tracy K. Smith’s “My God, It’s Full of Stars,” Will Alexander’s “Compound Hibernation,” or John Beer’s “Mary, Color Scientist.” What scientific issues or debates are such poems responding to? What kinds of interventions, commentary, or explanation do they offer? Then have students generate a list of the most exciting, controversial, or cutting-edge scientific debates of the 21st century. Ask them to choose one to research and develop a poem that responds, takes inspiration from, or intersects with it in some way. Have students present a poetry-science fair in which they both explain their scientific issue and share their poem.
  2. Eliot’s poem is thinking about the “definition ‘I’” in broadly scientific and philosophical terms, but there is a way in which her investigation could also be of the way the pronoun “I” works in poetry, especially lyric poetry. Use Eliot’s poem to launch a discussion of the “lyric I.” First have students arrive a definition of lyric poetry. You might read the glossary’s definition and discuss. Do your students feel like they are expressing personal feelings when they write poems? Always or sometimes? Try to foster a discussion about what parts of themselves they feel are engaged when writing poems. Have them think about Eliot’s poem: does using “I” in a poem assert “your subject, self, or self-assertive ‘I’” or melt it to molecules? For a point of comparison, perhaps ask students to read Jack Spicer’s lecture on “Dictation and ‘A Textbook of Poetry.’” How do Spicer’s views complicate ideas about poetry as purely self-expressive? Another poem you might ask students to read is this funny, self-referential poem by Olena Kalytiak Davis. As a final exercise, have students write “I” poems that take up one of the modes you’ve discussed: either obviously self-expressive, dictated a la Spicer, or scathingly self-aware as with Davis.
More Poems by George Eliot