Skip to main content

The Substance of Shadow

A Darkening Trope in Poetic History

John Hollander, poet and scholar, was a master whose work joined luminous learning and imaginative risk. This book, based on the unpublished Clark Lectures Hollander delivered in 1999 at Cambridge University, witnesses his power to shift the horizons of our thinking, as he traces the history of shadow in British and American poetry from the Renaissance to the end of the twentieth century.

Shadow shows itself here in myriad literary identities, revealing its force as a way of seeing and a form of knowing, as material for fable and parable. Taking up a vast range of texts—from the Bible, Dante, Shakespeare, and Milton to Poe, Dickinson, Eliot, and Stevens—Hollander describes how metaphors of shadow influence our ideas of dreaming, desire, doubt, and death. These shadows of poetry and prose fiction point to unknown, often fearful domains of human experience, showing us concealed shapes of truth and possibility. Crucially, Hollander explores how shadows in poetic history become things with a strange substance and life of their own: they acquire the power to console, haunt, stalk, wander, threaten, command, and destroy. Shadow speaks, even sings, revealing to us the lost as much as the hidden self.

An extraordinary blend of literary analysis and speculative thought, Hollander’s account of the substance of shadow lays bare the substance of poetry itself.   

184 pages | 5 1/2 x 8 1/2 | © 2016

Art: Art--General Studies

Literature and Literary Criticism: American and Canadian Literature, British and Irish Literature, General Criticism and Critical Theory

Philosophy: Aesthetics


“Gross has done an excellent job. . . . The learned and diverting book he has produced is a great pleasure, as brilliant in the small scale as it is suggestive in its broad sweep. . . . ‘Shadows are metaphors too imaginatively substantial for abstract discourse, and they get out of hand,’ [Hollander] says at one point. The Substance of Shadow demonstrates the immense poetic advantages that may be won from apprehending their uncertain life.”

Times Literary Supplement

“In his characteristically brilliant way, Hollander shows that reading historically is as much about the parallax view as the teleological mechanism. . .his lucidity is a model for those who might yet track the shadows cast beyond the purview of his lectures: those hovering over, within, and between the fractured domains of contemporary poetry.”


“In the wake of his death, Kenneth Gross carefully edited the lectures. . .incorporating some revisions Hollander had indicated and including other notes and additional passages in an appendix in the back. I say ‘carefully’ to indicate precision, certainly, but more so to indicate the attention that affection affords and which Gross exemplifies in his shepherding of this posthumous work. Nowhere is this more evident than in the stellar introduction, which well-nigh rivals Hollander’s own prose for its elegance and insight. . most invigorating in Hollander’s account is a reminder that shadows offer us exquisite figures for the patient making that is poetry.”

The Spenser Review

“Though we don’t often notice it, shadow is everywhere in our lives and in the world, and almost as ubiquitous in literature. The late John Hollander, a poet and critic of dazzling inventiveness and erudition, focuses a brilliant spotlight on this element of darkness that lies so close to otherwise sunlit surfaces. Kenneth Gross is to be congratulated for assembling Hollander’s Clark Lectures at Cambridge into a whole. As Gross says, ‘the book can suggest an anatomy of melancholy . . . but shadow here is also an occasion of continuous wonder and opening to the gifts of time.’”

John Ashbery, author of Notes from the Air

“In The Substance of Shadow, Hollander traces the poetic life of shadows in the West from the Psalms and the Book of Job through Virgil, Dante, and on through a spectral company to T. S. Eliot and Hart Crane. This is a book of chiaroscuro imagination and erudition, a study of a tradition darkening as it increasingly uses a central image to reflect on the work of poetry, its powers of allusion, and figuration. I came away astonished at these new readings of classic works.”

Rosanna Warren, author of Ghost in a Red Hat

“Who knows what shadows lurk in the hearts, and around the margins, and in the allusive connections of poems great and minor, English and American, classical and European? Nobody knew as much, perhaps, as John Hollander, who explored the binaries, the dualities, the implications of literary shadows in these splendid, memorable lectures, tracing the shadow as topos and trope over centuries. This is a carefully salvaged and pellucid text from the poet, critic, and scholar who taught so many of us so much.”

Stephen Burt, Harvard University

“The late John Hollander was an immensely erudite poet-critic whose acute scholarship illuminated the nature of Western poetry and its history. His masterwork The Substance of Shadow completes his life’s work of tracing the images and metaphors of the imagination. Sixty years of conversation with him flood back upon me as I follow his guidance in pursuing poems that are a Great Shadow’s last embellishments.”

Harold Bloom, Yale University

Table of Contents

1.         A Lecture upon the Shadow
2.         Shadows and Shades
3.         Shadowes Light
4.         A Shadow Different from Either
5.         Fragments of Shadow: Manuscript Extracts 


Choice Magazine: CHOICE Outstanding Academic Title Awards

Be the first to know

Get the latest updates on new releases, special offers, and media highlights when you subscribe to our email lists!

Sign up here for updates about the Press