The The

I love the word the in all its definitiveness and narrowness, and in all its complexity and ambiguity.

In latin languages the word can let an almost platonic itness to a noun, as in "estalla la luz de los limones", or "lanza de los dolores , corola de la colera."1 Is it the light of the limes (the particular limes right there) that bursts, or is it the light of all limes that bursts? Is it the lance of the pains (my pains), or is it the lance of all pain (pain itself)?

The same effect can be achieved in English, and I love its use. The first few lines of Billy Collins' Shadow:

"The sun finally goes down like the end
of the Russian novel, and the blinding darkness
over the continent makes me realize

How tired I am of reading and writing..."

The "the" in "the end" suggests the archetypal End, as in the Close of the Curtain, but stays pretty plainly "the end." Just "the end of the Russian novel." And the "the" in "the blinding darkness" is focussed; it is the darkness right there over the continent.

The best "the" in those lines is the "the" of "the Russian novel." Is "the end of the Russian novel" the end the Russian novel I just read? That suggests itself, but that idea would be better rendered "like the end of a Russian novel." Is the "the" of "the Russian novel" a reference back to the "the" of "the end?" That is, is it a reference to the archetypal ending that all Russian novels, that the genre, must close with? Or best of all, is the "the" of "the Russian novel" a "the" referring to the idea of the Russian novel? I.e. the idea of the Russian novel is dead, and the sun is going down on it.

That "the" is all those things, although more the last and less the first. Ooh. Hooray for those articles! On the other hand, how tired I am of reading and writing...

1 from Cien Sonetos de Amor, Pablo Neruda