The metaphor of the emptiness, vacuity, inanity of words is used all the time in denouncements of rhetoric. Emptiness is one of the most effective metaphors in the rhetoric of anti-rhetoric. It is favoured in particular, I think, in religious contexts, where it is meaningful to speak of words being empty in the sense that they are devoid of the substance of grace or faith; and, conversely, to speak of the plenitude of the divine Word made flesh. This rhetoric is deployed again and again in the New Testament, against hypocrisy: the words of hypocrites are empty, or else they are whited sepulchres, not empty, but full of dead men's bones – bones that are rotting away, and so empty on the inside. The emptiness is displaced onto the thing inside.
But the play of emptiness and fullness is not to be taken lightly, and hoc est corpus might be so much empty hocus pocus, depending of the hearer. Charity is a virtue of full-fill-ment, but it is etymologically the same as carity: lack, emptiness.
The metaphor is not, to be sure, the sole preserve of religious discourse. It has a rich history in poetry, in satire, in polemical writing. Plato denounced the emptiness of the Sophists' rhetoric, and throughout antiquity the principal charge levelled against sophistical rhetoric continued to be its emptiness; Persius satirized the inanity of bad poetry; Juvenal the empty words of flatterers and panders. Cicero, in the De Oratore, writes that speech without learning is but empty chatter ('est enim et scientia comprehendenda rerum plurimarum, sine qua verborum volubilitas inanis atque inridenda est'). In the Renaissance, they were full of it: an anxiety about the emptiness of words, that is. Du Bellay wrote against the empty poetry of his contemporaries, in particular the pétrarquisants (emptiness is a charge often levelled against love poetry especially); Erasmus wrote against the empty rhetoric of the ciceronians. Glory is an empty word, according to Montaigne (and many others). Fame, too, is an empty word; and Fama lives in a hollow house of ringing bronze, according to Ovid: bronze makes a lot of empty noise. But it can be a paradox too for an empty vessel to be full of noise. If life is a tale told by an idiot, signifying nothing, it is at least full of sound and fury, not empty.
According to the logic of this metaphor, words are figured as receptacles that may be empty or full of intent, sincerity, learning. So emptiness seems to equate to absolute lack of sincerity, or the absence of intention behind a word's meaning.
But, then: Ovid's Echo returns the words of Narcissus in what seems to be empty repetition. They have meaning nevertheless, because they are invested with an emotional truth, which Narcissus does not recognise (Flaubert's Rodophe has the same problem: 'Il ne distinguait pas, cet homme si plein de pratique, la dissemblance des sentiments sous la parité des expressions'). The emptiness behind the utterance is transfigured by some paradox of thought into plenitude of meaning, even though it is not apparent on the surface of things. The words are empty, but the intention behind them is full.
And then there is music: woodwind and brass instruments work on the principle of air being forced through confined empty spaces. The clarion call can be used as an image for the poetic word, and that carries not a connotation of empty noise, but of resounding clarity. And clarity is the ultimate end towards which all poetry tends. The difference between empty noise and fullness of sound is all in the attunement of the instrument. Hollowness can also be resounding, resonant. Hollow words can ring true. Emptiness can be beautiful. In Mallarmé, emptiness makes for sonic beauty, 'aboli bibelot d'inanité sonore'; in Shelley, emptiness makes for visual beauty: 'Life, like a dome of many-coloured glass, stains the white radiance of eternity.'
The nineteenth century, struggling anew with the age-old anxieties bound up with empty words, came up with a new poetics of emptiness and plenitude. I have two main reference points here, and I think they are worth quoting in full.
La Cloche fêlée
Il est amer et doux, pendant les nuits d'hiver,
D'écouter, près du feu qui palpite et qui fume,
Les souvenirs lointains lentement s'élever
Au bruit des carillons qui chantent dans la brume.
Bienheureuse la cloche au gosier vigoureux
Qui, malgré sa vieillesse, alerte et bien portante,
Jette fidèlement son cri religieux,
Ainsi qu'un vieux soldat qui veille sous la tente!
Moi, mon âme est fêlée, et lorsqu'en ses ennuis
Elle veut de ses chants peupler l'air froid des nuits,
Il arrive souvent que sa voix affaiblie
Semble le râle épais d'un blessé qu'on oublie
Au bord d'un lac de sang, sous un grand tas de morts,
Et qui meurt, sans bouger, dans d'immenses efforts.
'Tis bitter joy, as winter evenings wear
before a smoking hearth which flames aghast,
to hear slow memories mounting from the past,
while church-bells pierce the pall of misty air.
Blessèd the flawless bell, of metal rare,
the full-toned bourdon, void of rift and rust,
which like a guardsman faithful to his trust
hurls forth unfailingly its call to prayer!
My soul's a riven bell, that timidly
would fill the frozen night with melody,
but oft it falters, whisperingly weak
As, echoing over lakes of blood, a shriek
muffled by mounds of dead, from one who lies
moveless as they, though struggling till he dies.
— trans. Lewis Piaget Shanks (it's a faithless, cracking translation, but better than most – Baudelaire so often comes out in English translation as overwrought prose)
Baudelaire makes much of that ancient image of the cracked bell. He seems to hear the solid, true-ringing bell as an echo of a memory of a faith in God, a faith no longer possible. The un-cracked bell rings true; emptiness might also be faithful to the truth. But the imperfection in that emptiness, the crack in the bell, produces a faltering sound. The cracked bell is a cracked soul, whose voice is weak, a death rattle. But the poet seems to be asking: might not that death be more beautiful than the clarity of the faithful ring? Poetry supplies the answer.
Flaubert uses a similar image in this justly famous passage from Madame Bovary:
Emma ressemblait à toutes les maîtresses; et le charme de la nouveauté, peu à peu tombant comme un vêtement, laissait voir à nu l’éternelle monotonie de la passion, qui a toujours les mêmes formes et le même langage. Il ne distinguait pas, cet homme si plein de pratique, la dissemblance des sentiments sous la parité des expressions. Parce que des lèvres libertines ou vénales lui avaient murmuré des phrases pareilles, il ne croyait que faiblement à la candeur de celles-là; on en devait rabattre, pensait-il, les discours exagérés cachant les affections médiocres; comme si la plénitude de l’âme ne débordait pas quelquefois par les métaphores les plus vides, puisque personne, jamais, ne peut donner l’exacte mesure de ses besoins, ni de ses conceptions, ni de ses douleurs, et que la parole humaine est comme un chaudron fêlé où nous battons des mélodies à faire danser les ours, quand on voudrait attendrir les étoiles. (II. 12.)
Emma was like all his mistresses; and the charm of novelty, gradually falling away like a garment, laid bare the eternal monotony of passion, that has always the same forms and the same language. He did not distinguish, this man of so much experience, the difference of sentiment beneath the sameness of expression. Because lips libertine and venal had murmured such words to him, he believed but little in the candour of hers; exaggerated speeches hiding mediocre affections must be discounted; as if the fullness of the soul did not sometimes overflow in the emptiest metaphors, since no one can ever give the exact measure of his needs, nor of his conceptions, nor of his sorrows; and since human speech is like a cracked tin kettle, on which we hammer out tunes to make bears dance when we long to move the stars.
— trans. E. M. Aveling
Again, that anxiety about emptiness in the discourse of love and sentiment. The image of the cracked kettle is supremely affecting, but I am more interested in the part that comes before. Can the 'fullness' of the soul overflow sometimes in the emptiest of metaphors? Rodolphe thinks that fullness of soul cannot be expressed in empty words, 'comme si la plénitude de l'âme ne débordait pas quelquefois par les métaphores les plus vides'; but we know that it can. This is the tragedy of Madame Bovary: the tragic truth of the fullness of sentiment behind the emptiness of words.