A Sense of Friendship in the Midst of Loneliness

The Tuft of Flowers
BY ROBERT FROST

I went to turn the grass once after one
Who mowed it in the dew before the sun.

The dew was gone that made his blade so keen
Before I came to view the levelled scene.

I looked for him behind an isle of trees;
I listened for his whetstone on the breeze.

But he had gone his way, the grass all mown,
And I must be, as he had been,—alone,

As all must be,’ I said within my heart,
Whether they work together or apart.’

But as I said it, swift there passed me by
On noiseless wing a ‘wildered butterfly,

Seeking with memories grown dim o’er night
Some resting flower of yesterday’s delight.

And once I marked his flight go round and round,
As where some flower lay withering on the ground.

And then he flew as far as eye could see,
And then on tremulous wing came back to me.

I thought of questions that have no reply,
And would have turned to toss the grass to dry;

But he turned first, and led my eye to look
At a tall tuft of flowers beside a brook,

A leaping tongue of bloom the scythe had spared
Beside a reedy brook the scythe had bared.

I left my place to know them by their name,
Finding them butterfly weed when I came.

The mower in the dew had loved them thus,
By leaving them to flourish, not for us,

Nor yet to draw one thought of ours to him.
But from sheer morning gladness at the brim.

The butterfly and I had lit upon,
Nevertheless, a message from the dawn,

That made me hear the wakening birds around,
And hear his long scythe whispering to the ground,

And feel a spirit kindred to my own;
So that henceforth I worked no more alone;

But glad with him, I worked as with his aid,
And weary, sought at noon with him the shade;

And dreaming, as it were, held brotherly speech
With one whose thought I had not hoped to reach.

Men work together,’ I told him from the heart,
Whether they work together or apart.’

Another example of a Robert Frost poem is “The Tuft of Flowers,” an even more challenging read than the first two. As for form, the poem has a continuous rhyme scheme of aa. This scheme occurs in succeeding couplets. The fact of two lines being together may point to one of the poem’s dominating themes: friendship. But before the speaker comes to the optimistic realization that he is never alone, he must first face loneliness. I’m going to try to piece this poem apart the best I can.

The speaker searches for the mower who went leveling out the grass after the brink of dawn, a traditional way of farming. But the speaker cannot find his fellow man: “But he had gone his way, the grass all mown/ And I must be, as he had been, -alone” (lines 7-8).  The word “alone” occurs at an effective place, just after a caesura. The word being singled out in the line emphasizes the speaker’s new-found loneliness. The speaker feels that his loneliness is an inescapable predicament, a universal one, since the mower was alone himself in traveling the fields. He has reached a seeming conclusion: whether people are together or not, they will be lonely. Either humans cannot understand each other fully despite their closeness, or death itself will ultimately isolate people from one another permanently. Death seems to be present in the poem; the mower uses a “scythe” to level the grass, a term with a sharp, vicious sound, often associated as the grim reaper’s tool of demise. In lines 23-24, the speaker mentions that the scythe has spared a tuft of flowers while “baring” a nearby brook. In the same way, death, being an unpredictable force in the world, spares some while destroying others. And maybe the mower represents God, who is sovereign over the power of death. But most seem to think that the mower is merely a fellow man with whom the speaker wishes to identify.

But then a butterfly appears to the speaker, coming to be a symbol of the speaker himself. Frost describes the butterfly  as “seeking with memories grown dim o’er night/ Some resting flower of yesterday’s delight” (lines 13-14). The speaker is in a similar situation as the butterfly, for he wants to find some hope in his present state, wanting to return to a time when he didn’t feel isolated. The butterfly flies as far as the speaker can see, then returns to him, flapping his wings nervously (lines 17-18). The speaker, similarly, searches for an answer to his isolation, trying to think as deeply as possible, but comes back to himself just as frightened and vulnerable as ever.

On seeing the tuft of flowers the butterfly points out, however, the speaker obtains a new sense of not being abandoned.  In the third to last stanza, the poem says “But glad with him, I worked as with his aid.” And in the last stanza, the speaker’s new conclusion is that men work together whether they are apart or together. Seeing the tuft of flowers still around signals to the speaker that there is still a certain sense of companionship to be embraced. Not all is lost. If the mower shares the same destiny as he, then he needn’t feel isolated. Humans share common bonds no matter their distance. This gives us a small but interesting comfort in the face of the “scythe.” The speaker can live his life as a single individual, content in his place, knowing that there will always be someone out there sharing in his sufferings. The butterfly’s arrival, if nothing else, is the sure sign that he isn’t alone. That’s what I got for tonight folks! See you later.

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A Battle with Temptation

Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening

BY ROBERT FROST

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.
My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.
He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.
The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
Robert Frost often speaks of the New England landscape in his poetry, highlighting the wintry seasons that invade its lands. In one poem, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” the speaker travels on his way home when he spots a thicket of woods. He muses on snow filling the trees and how the owner of the woods will not spot his sight-seeing. As his horse urges him on, he enters a mental conflict on whether or not he should be enraptured with the woods or continue on home. The traveler struggles to maintain his life’s purpose in the midst of temptation.
From the first stanza, the listener may infer that the speaker’s act of watching the intriguing woods is a forbidden act, one which he has no right to perform. In the third and fourth lines he says “He will not see me stopping here/ To watch his woods fill up with snow.” Since the speaker isn’t spotted by the owner of the woods (“He”), he can watch the owner’s property without fear of being caught. Some interpreters believe God represents the owner, but why would the man say that the owner will not be able to see him? Cannot God see all things? The more likely interpretation is that the owner is a mere man with whom the speaker is in contact with more or less. The speaker involves himself with a temptation that could damage his relation to the owner on some level. Yet why would merely watching the woods be a sin? Maybe he just wishes that no else would spot him considering something that is out of the way of his life’s purpose.
It definitely seems that the man’s fascination with the woods is shocking to a degree. The horse shakes his bells as if asking if there is a mistake in stopping to watch the woods (lines 9-10). Whatever the speaker is doing is out of the norm from his daily living routine. The word “darkest” in line 8 points to a tone of evil being introduced; the traveler has entered into the possibility of committing sin. And this temptation seems to be growing on him. Lines 11 and 12 says “The only other sound’s the sweep/ Of easy wind and downy flake.” The word “sweep” is an instance of onomatopoeia, giving the listener the sense that the speaker will soon be swept up in this new found consideration embedded in the woods. The words “easy” and “downy” are adjectives that signal how simple and easy the temptation is for the speaker to be embellished in. The longer he thinks of the woods, the more he falls under their wintry enchantment.  Line 12 furthers the description of the woods as being “lovely, dark and deep.” They are “lovely” in that they appeal to him, “dark” in that they suggest transgression, and “deep” in that once he gives in to what they suggest, he will be lost for a long time, possibly forever; there will be no end to his succumbing to it.
But there appears to be a shift in the speaker’s attitude towards the woods when he says “But I have promises to keep” (line 13). He is now countering or trying the resist the lure of the woods and what they suggest. He attempts to center his focus on the obligations he has towards other people, maybe the owner of the woods or maybe his family. By giving in to the temptation, he endangers his relationships with others in the village mentioned in line 2. The shift in the poem’s rhythm also points to the speaker’s shift in focus; up until the fourth stanza, the poem’s rhyme scheme has been aaba. But the fourth stanza has a scheme of straight aaaa. Such a change in the poem’s structure changes the flow of words and the speaker’s speech pattern. But what could this change ultimately mean in regards with the speaker’s battle with temptation?
The answer seems to lie in the fourth stanza’s final two lines: “And miles to go before I sleep/ And miles to go before I sleep.” This instance of incremental repetition could point to several conclusions. The first is that, by repeating this phrase to himself, the speaker is fighting the wood’s spell on him, trying stress the importance of keeping his vows to others. Sometimes people often repeat resolutions to themselves to emphasize their importance. But it seems just as likely that the speaker has lost the battle with temptation. Repetition of phrasing could occur when a person is falling asleep. The word “sleep” is repeated twice in the final two lines, giving it special attention.  The speaker could be falling asleep as his fatigue is gaining on him. The word “miles,” being repeated twice as well, suggests that the speaker has a long, wearying journey to go before he can rest form his labors and duties. And maybe that is precisely why he falls under the wood’s enchantment; he has lost the will to go further, overwhelmed not merely with physical fatigue but spiritual fatigue too. His responsibilities have become too demanding. It is far easier to give in to rebellion when one is tired. The woods offer a quick solution to his difficult workings. Since the fourth stanza goes in one direction as far as rhyme scheme (in contrast to the first three stanzas) this could prove that the speaker has now fully fell under the enchantment. Some have even suggested that the speaker is dying at this point since death is often metaphorically compared to sleep. Thus the poem goes beyond being a simple poem of a man falling asleep next to a set of woods. But ultimately, it is up for the reader to decide what the poem means for them and what the speaker actually endures. As for me, it seems that the speaker has succumbed to a delightful temptation in response to his stressful life, an all too common human experience. But this temptation feels more peaceful than evil for me, since I always picture a man falling asleep quietly next to the woods as the snow is slowly falling down, a much needed rest for a man pushed to his very core.

Hatred is Greater than Desire

Fire and Ice

BY ROBERT FROST

Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.

 

 

The twentieth century poet Robert Frost wrote a work entitled “Fire and Ice,” asking a question to better understand the world: what is more damaging to society: desire or hatred? Since Frost was an American modernist writer, he lived around the time of the first World War, a time that would challenge the optimistic values that humans had long held. Destruction pervaded Frost’s era, for the war caused countless deaths and destroyed numerous social structures. The speaker in “Fire and Ice” seeks to answer a debatable enigma as to what caused such chaos. More so, by knowing the answer, he will be able to predict how mankind will destroy the world in the future. From considering his own experiences, the speaker concludes that hatred, not desire, will be the ruin of the human race.

The first two lines usher in the poem’s debate: “Some say the world will end in fire/ Some say in ice” (lines 1-2). Each complete statement is a declarative decision as to what will be mankind’s downfall though there is an obvious disagreement. At first, it seems that fire is the crowning element. The speaker says “From what I’ve tasted of desire/ I hold with those who favor fire” (lines 3-4). The listener knows that fire symbolizes desire due to the rhyme linking the two words together; their sounds harmonize with one another, comparing them metaphorically. Drawing on his own personal (yet limited)  experiences of ambition, greed and/or lust, the speaker views desire as something that will destroy the world. He sees that desire drives people to not consider others as equally valuable as themselves for it tends to shut them off from one another. When humans consider only their own wants, they lose touch with the feelings of others since their focus is inward and not outward. Consumed by desire, people will tend to tyrannize others to achieve their ambitions.  Humans will bring their own demise on themselves due to their consuming lusts. The first line in the poem can be seen as a biblical reference to God’s judgment on the Earth. The Bible speaks of how the world will end in “hail, fire and brimstone.” Yet this allusion works for ice just as much as it does for fire due to the word “hail.”

It seems that the speaker has made his decision, until the word “but” occurs. The speaker considers another element: “But if it had to perish twice/ I think I know enough of hate/To say that for destruction ice/ Is also great/ And would suffice” (lines 5-9).  The first line seems to indicate that desire has not succeeded in destroying the world; if it had, why would the planet need to be destroyed a second time? Even when desire has been satisfied, it is only for a moment. This seems to point to the nature of desire, how it often returns to consume us even when we think we’ve fulfilled it. Therefore, the speaker turns to another destructive emotion: hatred. He knows from experience that hate is just as potent as desire. Though the words “hate” and “ice” do not rhyme, their consonant endings still link them together as metaphorical ideas. Like fire, ice is “also great” which would seem to put the speaker at a standstill on his musings. But the last line settles the issue once and for all: “And would suffice.” The word “suffice” denotes a completion of a mission, an ultimate satisfaction which will not occur twice. Once it’s mission is complete it is complete. Rhyme links “ice” with this concept; it is even found in the word “suffice” itself. The word sounds like actual ice freezing an object over with it’s stinging sound, giving the listener the sense that not only that the poem is over but the debate overall. The rhythm of the poem even points to ice being greater than fire. It takes only a couplet to form the speaker’s decision about fire, yet it takes a five rushing lines to point to ice’s fury.  Outright hatred will lead humans to destroy one another with no strings attached. When you despise someone, you generally do not beat around the bush with how you feel about them. Either you avoid them or unleash your wrath. Failure to love one another will surely lead to mankind’s death. In some cases, desire can be seen as something positive rather than negative; but hatred is negative overall. If the poem’s tone was bleak before, it is even more so now.

Pursuing one’s desires, in the long run, can be a positive benefit for others, especially in the economic and sexual arenas; through capitalism, consumers and employees both benefit, howbeit sometimes not strictly equally. But still, both are pleasured. In sexuality, male and females give each other satisfaction to the benefit of each. But hatred does not allow any to experience happiness; it is the antithesis to life and desire. As a result, it leaves destruction. And unlike desire, it gets the job done by bringing closure, though a ruthless one.

Contemporary Literature Responses

Advantageous Secrets in Philip Roth’s The Human Stain

            By nature, humans attempt to understand one another. Individuals judge each other based on characteristics they perceive, believing their assumptions valid. But sometimes these generalizations are stereotypical in nature. People feel isolated by the way society labels them. Philip Roth’s novel, The Human Stain, illustrates how humans respond to this dilemma; they hide secrets in order to create social advantages for themselves.

When Coleman Silk decides to hide his African American heritage by declaring himself a white Jew, he learns the value of keeping secrets. His boxing coach, Doc Chizner, instructs him to keep his heritage to himself: “He [Chizner] told Coleman not to mention that he was colored. ‘If nothing comes up,’ Doc said, ‘you don’t bring it up. You’re neither one thing or the other. You’re Silky Silk. That’s enough.’” (Roth 98). The question of categorization, whether or not Coleman is colored, is negated; he’s not a race, he is Silky Silk, the irreducible singularity of a person (Hungerford 4). Instead of aligning himself with an ethnic group that suffers discrimination at the hands of society, Coleman sees himself as a distinct individual who defies definition. This self-affirming coping mechanism allows him to not degrade himself because he is black. He views himself as a person with many facets and not just one based on his race. By keeping this knowledge secret, he flies under the racist radar. Using this technique allows Coleman to have a private consciousness, one which gives him the right to make his own decisions; we can decide when to decide (Hungerford 7). Instead of being at the mercy of society’s standards and judgments, Coleman lives his own life as he pleases. He stands as the master of his own destiny, unfettered by others and their viewpoints.

Works Cited

            Hungerford, Amy. “Philip Roth, the Human Stain.” Open Yale Courses. Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut. 31 March 2008. Lecture.

Roth, Philip. The Human Stain. New York: Vintage International, 2000. Print.

Why Remain a Slave?

            In Edward Jone’s The Known World, the reader catches a glimpse of nineteenth century slavery in all of its struggles involving African Americans. Most would argue that slavery, with its limitation on freedom and harsh working conditions, should have been abandoned as soon as possible. Why would anyone desire such a difficult life, always answering to a superior who does not have your best interests at heart? But Jone’s novel argues that there is one strong reason to remain in slavery: connection with others.

Elias desires to marry Celeste due to her affectionate ways towards him. On page 101, the narrator says “He had been safe…on the road to freedom, but then he remembered that there was something way back in slavery that he had forgotten and so he ran back to slavery.” Elias limits his own personal freedom, something that any African American would die for during the time, simply so he can bond with Celeste. He views human affection as something so important even if it involves endangering your own liberty.

Having marital relationships seems to even be a coping mechanism in slavery, according to the narrator. On page 72, Stamford remembers some advice: “’Without all that young stuff, you will die a slave.’” “Young Stuff” refers to young women in this context. The advice admonishes Stamford that the best thing for a slave is to be in a relationship of some sorts. Otherwise, they will die a slave and all alone, no one helping them along the painful road they must walk.

Another instance of this idea occurs on page 346. The narrator says that “Hope and family” look after Augustus as he dies. Since the word “Hope” is tied so closely with family in this case, it signals the relation between the two ideals that help slaves endure their hardships. In other words, hope is family, the one thing a slave can lean on in the nineteenth century. Hope’s name becomes an allegory in this way.

The one argument against these instances is an old but fresh one: having personal relations with others is no excuse to deprive oneself of liberty. So the debate is still as fresh as ever. Is it truly better to be a slave for the sake of others rather than be on your own and free? How this question is answered determines how we as humans view each other in a global community where individualism and collectivism clash constantly.

Reason and Religion in Julia Alvarez’s Saving the World

            By the time the Enlightenment gained ground as a philosophical movement in the world, religion came under serious skeptical attack. This was especially true around 1803, the time period in which half of Alvarez’s novel takes place. Enlightenment thinkers stressed that religion was the enemy of reason and that the world needed a new kind of faith; people only needed to place their faith in reason rather than God as a means to understand the world. When Isabel first prepares to meet Don Francisco Balmis, she thinks to herself that she has many doubts concerning the Virgin Mary (page 32). Despite the fact that she has served the church orphanage for many years, she doesn’t always feel comfortable with what she believes. Yet on page 34, she seems to find an agreeable solution between what she believes and reason, namely medicine. She compares Jesus’ birth from a stable to the salvation being offered to those suffering from smallpox. Francisco’s solution to smallpox is just as needful to people as the redemption that Christ offers. The vaccine originates from a cow in a stable, so it is linked to the biblical story of Christ’s birth. It seem that Isabel has found a compromise between the things she sees and the things she doesn’t. Faith in God and humanism can go hand in hand. On page 64, Isabel comments that science was a handmaiden to religion. This compromise helps the reader understand Isabel’s worldview, namely, that religion and reason can be used to promote social justice around the world.

Truth and Lies in Sherman Alexie’s War Dances

            For generations, people turn to absolute truth as a means to live on Earth as well as connecting with their fellow human beings. It is often the sign of integrity and nobility that people uphold the truth by being as brutally honest as they can be, even if it is difficult to bear. Yet at times, the line between telling the truth and lying blurs, creating complex emotional situations. Whether or not to tell the truth is entirely dependent on what is at stake for an individual.

On page 50, the narrator receives some important information about a long-lost grandfather: he died in the field of battle. As the narrator is hearing about his grandfather’s courage, the storyteller says “I was thinking of making something as beautiful as I could. Something about love, forgiveness, and courage and all that. But…I didn’t want to lie to you.” In this case, storytelling, or fiction, can be seen as a way of lying to people about real life events so as to encourage some emotion in them. Writers are not always truthful; they may want to stretch the truth to comfort those in need. But for the storyteller in this example, lying is pointless simply because it is. It does the narrator no good to hear something about his grandfather that wasn’t true. It isn’t noble.

Yet the senator’s son in another of Alexie’s stories receives saving grace due to his father’s forcing him to lie. On page 96, the father tells his son that if he tells everyone the truth about how his son assaulted a homosexual, then his political career will be ruined. So they both must lie to save the father’s reputation, though this concept goes against everything the son has ever been taught.

On page 132, the narrator ponders if telling the truth just once after a life of lies somehow redeems you. He wonders about a man committing adultery against his wife saying that he always loved her. Is that true in light of his promiscuity? Most would say no. The narrator evens says that such reasoning can “only be the moral relativism of a liar, thief, and a cheater.” And so, ultimately, it seems that humans tell lies to save themselves out of situations or to feel better about themselves and others. As Ray Bradbury said in his short story “The Toynbee Convector,” “we are always lying to ourselves because we want to have hope for the future.”

Faith and Doubt in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown”

Religion plays a role in American literature throughout the nineteenth century. Some writers placed themselves on skeptical ground when it came to how one perceives God; contrasted with seventeenth century Puritanism, with its emphasis on how the individual relates to God through faith in Christ’s work, the new idea in America claimed that faith tends to falter, creating serious doubt as to Christianity’s validity. The famous novelist, Nathaniel Hawthorne, used an aesthetic of ambiguity to highlight the conflicts that occur within a person’s beliefs. Hawthorne’s short story, “Young Goodman Brown,” centers on a man (named after the title) who leaves his wife, Faith, and journeys into the woods. His travels lead him to a witch meet, comprised of people whom he admires in the strict Puritan religious community. The meeting causes him to question the authenticity of his convictions. Throughout the tale, Hawthorne illustrates the ambiguous relationship between Goodman Brown’s religious faith and his doubt about whether his beliefs should be taken seriously.

            From the story’s start, Goodman Brown makes compromises concerning his Christianity, just when he leaves Faith at home. While surmising on his wife and nightly plans, he thinks, “ ‘…after this one night, I’ll cling to her skirts and follow her to Heaven.’ With this excellent resolve for the future, goodman Brown felt himself justified in making more haste on his present evil purpose” (Hawthorne 606).  Most scholars who research Hawthorne’s story conclude that Brown’s wife, Faith, symbolizes faith. Her name actually serves as an allegory of the virtue of faith itself. Goodman Brown, by entering the forest on an “evil” purpose, directly contradicts the warnings of his own conscience. In order to feel more comfortable with his decision, Brown must create a way to justify it to himself. Otherwise, his Christian conscience will nag at him, accusing him of warring against what constitutes goodness. Brown believes that after just one rebellious night, he will “cling” to the skirts of his faith and be on his way to Heaven. He trusts that whatever he does in the woods will have no detrimental effect on his spirituality. Yet why does Brown have such boldness to play around with evil? According to Leo B. Levy’s essay “The Problem of Faith in Young Goodman Brown,” Brown supports a strict determination to stand against his own evil impulses, and he also entertains innocent intentions in his purpose (Levy). Brown believes that if he puts himself in the way of temptation, then he will conquer evil itself. He desires to make himself stronger morally so as to avoid weakness and sin. Oddly, his justification for going into the woods consists of his desire to grow in his own faith. The reader beholds hypocrisy in Brown as a result of this compromise; he clings to one idea while acting in another way that contradicts it.

            There also appears to be an inconsistency of belief when it comes to Brown’s ancestors. Brown meets an old man walking on the wooded path. The man carries with him a staff that wriggles itself like a living serpent (Hawthorne 607). The word “serpent” denotes a sense of evil or deception, a sense of the presence of Satan. Therefore, the old man, associating himself with that particular staff, symbolizes the devil himself. The old man tells Brown that “I helped your grandfather, the constable, when he lashed the Quaker woman throughout the streets of Salem…I brought your father a pitch-pine knot to set fire to an Indian village” (Hawthorne 607). How is it that Brown’s Christ-following family could ever hold union with Satan if their religion preaches against the wiles of the devil? Would they rather not reject his companionship? But Hawthorne implies through the old man that that was indeed the case; Brown’s ancestors were under the influence of the devil when they persecuted those whom they deemed heretical and ungodly. The savagery of “lashing” and “setting fire” constitutes violent behavior that falls short of the Christian model of charity and forgiveness. By presenting the evidence of hypocrisy to Brown, the devil casts doubts as to the Puritans’ seriousness concerning their faith. The reader now discovers an ambiguity of intentions not only with Young Goodman Brown but also with those whom Brown wishes to defend. The Puritan insistence on good works seems to lack authenticity.             

              But if being a turncoat makes Brown’s faith seem discredible, Brown himself makes no such conclusion. Rather, he rebels against using hypocrisy as an excuse to turn against religion.  Brown speaks about an old woman him and the devil encounter on the road: “ ‘What if a wretched old woman do choose to go to the devil, when I thought she was going to Heaven! Is that any reason why I should quit my dear Faith, and go after her?’ ”(Hawthorne 609). The woman in question is Goody Cloyse, a person who taught Brown the tenets of Puritanism. Brown’s initial reaction at seeing the old woman going down the same demonic path as him illicts shock: Why would such a faithful person turn on their own profession of faith? Yet he defends his beliefs against the demoralization that that hypocrisy causes. He does not think that Christianity loses its seriousness simply because humans fail to follow its mandates.  By questioning rebellion, Brown ironically rebels against the purpose with which he set out into the woods to begin with. Now that he sees evil enveloping others, he desires to turn against his risky boldness and return to his wife, Faith, or rather, to simple trust in what his religion dictates to him. His original trust in God reaffirms itself in the midst of compromise. Instead of doubting his convictions, he now questions his deals with the devil. Now Brown needs to return to Faith and accept his limitations as a human being. No longer does he need to boldly place himself in the devil’s path.

            Yet what occurs when Brown, seeking his wife, Faith, calls out her name in the woods?  Faith’s pink ribbon falls form the sky and lands on a tree. Brown’s soul fills with horror: “ ‘My Faith is gone!’ cried he, after one stupefied moment. ‘There is no good on earth and sin is but a name. Come devil! For to thee is this world given’” (Hawthorne 611). For Brown, Faith’s lost ribbon signifies that she wanders in the sinful, dark forest just as he. As a result she, who stood as Brown’s Christian conscience, loses herself within the same maze. Faith stands guilty of hypocrisy as well, not adhering to her own convictions. The quality of faith itself seems inconsistent. Brown feels “stupefied” in that he never expected his own personal faith to give way so easily to temptation. He no longer has a wife to return home to (or rather, a faith to cling to in the face of doubt). According to Darrel Abel in The Moral Picturesque: Studies in Hawthorne’s Fiction, the pink ribbon’s existence in the woods proves that the defenses that Brown’s God sets around Brown’s consciousness do not protect him from the human tendency to gauge the nature of sin. He yields to the Devil’s persuasion; as a result, he loses faith in all he believes in (Abel 131).  Brown gives way to despair. The phrase “there is no good on earth” illustrates Brown’s belief that evil rules every aspect of life and that pretending otherwise means folly. Even the religious term “sin” fails to explain the full potential of evil in the world. The reality of wickedness grows on a more rampant level for Brown’s soul, distilling the optimism he held on to.

            However, Brown’s despair does not engender so much fear in him as it does a kind of bold confidence to accept the condition of his own sinfulness. Brown, reaching his ultimate level of insanity, runs through the woods shouting “Come witch, come wizard, come Indian powwow, come devil himself! And here comes goodman Brown. You may as well fear him as he fear you!” (Hawthorne 611).  Brown revels in the revelation that his own heart is wicked to the point to where he seriously believes he can equal another’s sinfulness. Why should he run away from his true self? Boasting in your own rebellion constitutes a more suitable response to the reality of sin. Though he may be afraid of the people the Puritans warned him about (Indians, witches, wizards) he counts himself as a figure just as worthy to be feared. His religious faith often warns to be cautious with those who accept sin. Yet Brown ignores this tenet, rushing headlong to meet sinners, this time, not to strengthen his faith, but to oppose it boldly, accepting his relationship to the sinner rather than his differences from them. At this point in the story, one may conclude that Brown abandons Christianity altogether, fully convinced that its teachings fail to give hope to the individual in a world riddled with evil.

            Amazingly, though, faith returns to Brown’s despairing heart, giving him hope for the future. As he enters the secret witch meet in the forest, he beholds the same people that populate the Puritan community. One may think that this fact would enforce Brown’s rebellion against God, but Hawthorne writes “ ‘But where is Faith?’ thought goodman Brown; and, as hope came into his heart, he trembled (Hawthorne 612). Brown, to this point, lingers in shock as to the failings of faith. But he still holds on to the as equally shocking possibility that faith still exists within himself. He returns to the basic tenet of Christianity, that faith needs to exist in order to make sense of the world around him. Brown expects Christianity’s presence in the midst of all the wicked revelers that surround him. This reinstatement of faith makes Brown “tremble” emotionally, for now he realizes that the world does not consist only in unchecked sin, that there still lurks hope for the sinner. He may even be “trembling” with a sense of guilt, knowing that he unfaithfully follows God. His heavenly Father may very well exist still, giving him hope despite his failure to perfectly uphold his religious convictions.

            But by the time Brown wakes inside the forest, his mind suffers under the confusion the witch meet produces in him. When he returns to his Puritan homeland, the sight of his relatives engenders disdain within him. Hawthorne writes “Old deacon Gookin was at domestic worship and the holy words of his prayer were heard through the window. ‘What God doth the wizard pray to?’ quoth goodman Brown” (Hawthorne 614). Brown refuses to believe in the deacon’s prayer; he assures himself that the man hypocritically prays to God for guidance. He no longer has a mutual relationship with his religious family due to his distrust of their intentions. Confusion, instead of sure faith, guides his thoughts now. The denouement raises the possibility that all was a dream, but the effect the dream reproduces on Brown is more important than whether or not it actually happened (Pennell 36). It is impossible to know whether or not the deacon is praying to the Christian God or to Satan. Hence, the reader must make his or her mind up regarding Brown’s experience; was it truth that Brown beheld in the woods or a trick of the devil? Brown will never be able to trust anyone ever again. He now lives with the conflicting emotions of ambiguity rather than absolute faith in God, or in the progress of his fellow Christians.

            Because Hawthorne displays multiple possibilities within his fiction, the reader is allowed to make their own decision as to what actually happened. Yet how does anyone make a decision when everything is so unclear? The only solution lies in faith in one’s interpretation. Humans must pick one direction to travel in life, whether it is faith in God or not. For nineteenth century Americans, the meaning of life holds many possibilities. Hawthorne believed the main goal of literature was to represent the ambiguity that plagues our lives and how it shapes people. Basing one’s life on the hypocrisy of others and oneself can create a state similar to goodman Browns: “sad, darkly meditative, distrustful, and desperate” (Hawthorne 614). Every person must decide on what is more authentic: faith in absolute hope or absolute despair.                  

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Three Poetry Responses

The Effects of Love in George Herbert’s “Love (III)” and Sir Philip Sidney’s “Astrophil and Stella 30”

Some poems treat the same subject yet present different viewpoints of that particular subject. For the speakers in George Herbert’s “Love (III)” and Sir Philip Sidney’s “Astrophil and Stella 30,” encountering love produces different effects on them. Herbert’s speaker, possessing low self-esteem, eventually accepts Love’s declaration that he is worthy to be in Love’s presence. But the speaker in Sidney’s poem, though struck with the pangs of love, ultimately suffers in his condition, growing melancholy all the while.

In Herbert’s “Love (III),” the speaker is invited by Love to sit and dine with Him. The word “Lord” is used in conjunction with “Love,” signaling that Love stands more as a religious concept, at least for this poem. At first, the speaker feels unworthy to sit with Love because he sees himself “guiltie of dust and sinne.” The religious connotations of this line point back towards the book of Genesis, where Adam and Eve partook of the forbidden fruit. This disobedience to God’s command brought sin into the world and also defined sin not only as an evil work but a state of being; the speaker’s identity, and not just his actions, is evil in the sight of God. How can he, as a natural born sinner, accept Love’s free welcome? The first line in the poem exemplifies the speaker’s hesitation in receiving Love’s invitation: “Love bade me welcome: yet my soul drew back.” The first half of the line serves as a light-hearted section, personifying love as the host of a banquet, inviting the speaker to share in His joys. But the word “yet” changes the tone of the line from one of celebration to one of reservation. It even slows the rhythm of the line down a little, being an unnecessary hindrance. The speaker’s soul “drew back” as a person would when intimidated by another’s advances. The speaker, at this point, resists Love’s requests.

However, eventually, he will come to submit to Love’s woos. Love says “who bore the blame?” when trying to convince the speaker to join Him. In the context of Christianity, this line could allude to the death of Christ as a propitiation for the sins of His people. The speaker, being forgiven by God through the works and death of Jesus, is now worthy to be in God’s holy presence. Convinced of the deep affection God has for him, the speaker says “then I will serve.” He now views himself worthy to be with God, no longer dwelling on his past sins and ungratefulness, and he wants to love God in return for His affection. The last two lines of the poem say “You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat:/So I did sit and eat. These lines represent the harmony the speaker now has with Love; there are rhyming words such as “meat” and “eat” that connect the speaker’s compliances as a positive response to Love’s admonition. Even the “t” consonant sounds give the lines a natural rhythm not hindered by unnecessary words of resistance by the speaker. Love has won the argument with the speaker, making the speaker’s life a more enjoyable one, one free of self-condemnation.

The speaker’s tone in Sidney’s poem, though, stays the same throughout : a kind of sadness pervades the poet’s mood. The speaker personifies the moon, giving it human-like actions: “With how sad steps, O moon, thou climb’st the skies!” The line’s metrical rhythm is somewhat slow, enhancing its gloomy tone. Why exactly is the moon rising with “sad steps”? The answer is love: “may it be that even in heavenly place/That busy archer his sharp arrows tries?” The “archer” in question is the Roman god of love, Cupid, who makes it his business to shoot unwary people with soft arrows, causing them to fall in love with others. He is often linked with the emotion of infatuation. Though not exactly the Christian version of Love in Herbert’s poem, he still represents a divine aspect of love, being an otherworldly being who instigates loving emotions. This kind of love has put the moon in a difficult position; love has made it sad. But why would being in love be a depressing experience? And is the poem truly about the moon or, really, more about the speaker himself? The speaker says: “To me, that feel the like, thy state descries.” The listener now realizes that the speaker is actually using the moon as a metaphor for his own personal state. He is the one who suffers the pangs of love. That’s why he used personification as a means to describe the moon in the first place. In questioning the moon, the speaker says “Those lovers scorn whom love doth possess/ Do they call ‘virtue’ there-ungratefulness?”  These rhetorical questions are the means by which the speaker reveals to the listener the reason for his pain. He wonders if the heavenly life is like his own, one where his loving advances and admonitions have been rejected by others. In his attempts to be virtuous, he has only been meeting with scorn and refusal. He suffers under unrequited love, meaning that his love has not been returned to him in spite of all his good intentions. As a result, he is trapped in depression.

So in looking at both of these poems, one may see two different emotions regarding love, particularly when love is received or rejected. For Herbert’s speaker, love has won his heart towards another, namely God, and has changed his life for the better. But as for Sidney’s speaker, he is what Love would have been in Herbert’s poem if He was rejected: heartbroken and disillusioned. Love, being a complex concept, is difficult to analyze. How we define it depends on not only how we experience it but also how others respond to what we feel.

An Urn and a Set of Ruins

            Some poets dedicate their verses to a single object which becomes the poem’s primary focus. These kinds of works are known as apostrophe poems. Two classic examples of this form are John Keat’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” and Percy Shelley’s “Ozymandias.”

When the speaker in Keat’s ode addresses his urn, he does not simply state that his addressee is an actual urn. Instead, he uses words such as “foster-child” and “Sylvan historian” to more creatively present his subject. He speaks of the vase’s art as if it is a present, active action occurring before his very eyes: “Who are these coming to the sacrifice? / To what green altar, O mysterious priest/ Lead’st thou that heifer lowing at the skies.” His wonder is exemplified by the fact that he is always questioning the vase’s contents, trying to solve the mysteries he beholds in its art. By asking these questions, he may be able to better understand the urn’s history.  To further emphasis the intriguing beauty he sees in the urn, the speaker repeats words such as “happy” and “forever.” With repetition, the listener receives the sense that the speaker is singling out a timeless, endless beauty. And indeed, beauty appears to be the answer the speaker discovers; in the final lines of the poem, the speaker gives the urn an actual voice to where the speaker changes and is now someone else: “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,-that is all/ Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” Two questions the reader of the poem may ask regarding the urn’s response might be: Is beauty the only truth that the universe holds for us? Are there other truths, truths that may not be so beautiful? And also, would the poem’s meaning become more or less powerful if the urn had been the speaker the entire time? Would the listener’s perspective change?

Shelley’s poem also uses a similar rhetorical technique by switching speakers. The poem’s opening line begins with an “I” speaker who ask a traveler about the ruins he sees and is interested in knowing more about. In this way he is like Keat’s speaker wanting to learn more about an object’s history. The traveler becomes the next speaker, giving the listener a description of the ruins, how they are “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone.” He then introduces another possible speaker in the form of the ruins itself: “My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings/ Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!” In this case, the object of the poem is defining itself and its origins, explaining to the reader what it is. Or at least it seems so. Ironically, the ruins tell the listener to see its works; this is impossible, for there is nothing to see. Nothing exists to behold, for it is all in ruin. The listener, nor the speaker, can truly know the full history of Ozymandias. And there is also a stark contrast in tone; whereas Keat’s poem appeals to an eternal beauty, Shelley points to an endless despair which has left his subject void of meaning. Since there are no clear quotation marks separating Ozymandia’s statement from the final three lines, can the reader really know the speaker has changed? Is Ozymandias the one who ends the poem or the traveler? Why didn’t Shelley make the distinction clear? Could a fourth speaker be the one who speaks of the “lone and level sands?” And does switching speakers help the reader explore Ozymandias or make it more difficult?

Each poem demonstrates a quest for truth. For Keats, the answer lies in a transcendent beauty that leaves its beholder speechless. But for Shelley, it is a stark despair which baffles the explorer’s senses. Is truth beauty or horror, or both?

A Struggling Optimism in Thomas Hardy’s “The Darkling Thrush”

            Thomas Hardy’s poem, “The Darkling Thrush,” tracks a speaker as he laments the haunted, wintry scenery he views around him. As he is trapped in the despair of his own mind, he alights on a thrush that represents his struggle to remain optimistic in spite of his feelings. The poem contains several formal elements that enhance this meaning.

One specific line in Hardy’s poem exemplifies its primary subject, namely, the thrush: “An aged thrush, frail, gaunt, and small.” This line contains a rising meter in that there are succeeding stressed accents. As such, it takes the reader more effort to speak the line with his or her tongue. The task in speaking the line points to the dreary tone that prevails most of the poem (at least until the end). The speaker’s depression on observing a bleak landscape leaks into his phrasing of the lines; as he struggles with his emotions, his very words are laborious. The line would have been easier to read (and thus more smooth and relaxed) if it would have contained a falling meter, for there would not be a drudging effort to speak. As far as speed is concerned, the rising meter makes the line read slowly, since it contains not only accentual beats but also pauses separating certain words.

The phrase “aged thrush” contains a stark contrast. There is an unaccented beat in “aged” whereas in the word “thrush” there is a strong accent. The thrush is an old bird, standing as a symbol of one who has grown weary over time. Thus the reader gets a glimpse into the speaker’s feelings through the bird’s descriptive adjective “aged.” The speaker grows tired of his life, hardly able to carry on. Yet he does, for the word “thrush,” with its sharp beat, points to an effort on the speaker’s part to still see good in the world. It sounds like the word “thrust,” a quick movement of the arm to push away an intervening obstacle. As a result, the tone in the poem becomes more hopeful rather than bleak all the way through. The reader at least has a hint that sadness doesn’t pervade the poem. One could even say there is a struggle between hope and despair or that the speaker fights to keep his head held high in the midst of sorrow and pain. The bird becomes a representation of faith as well as doubt.

After the word “thrush” comes a comma, instigating a caesura. This pause gives the reader time to describe the bird’s features even more with three distinct words: “frail, gaunt, and small.” The pause forces the reader to stop and think on the bird’s features, to pay close attention to what is being said about it. Before, the reader focused only the speaker’s description of the dismal landscape. Now, since the reader makes the word “thrush” stand alone in how he pronounces the line, the thrush is singled out. The bird will be the only symbol of hope in the poem, so it is important that it is noticed.

“Frail,” “gaunt,” and “small” are linked by two features. All three words contain the “a” consonant, linking them in a harmonious way. “Frail,” and “small’ both end with the “l” consonant.  More so, each word contains an accented beat. The speaker, in describing this possible representation of hope, struggles with the fact that the bird is so weak, hardly able to move. How could such a frail thing be a strong symbol of optimism against a backdrop that is so steeped in despair? Not only do the accents stress the words and the speaker’s skepticism, but each comma between the words gives the line more pauses, emphasizing each term, impressing the reader’s mind with a strong image each time. The emphasis points to the speaker’s desperation in hoping that things will turn better in the end. He isn’t completely sure good will triumph over evil, but refuses to give up entirely.

The stanza the line occurs in is fitting, for it says “At once a voice arose/ among the bleak twigs overhead/ In full-hearted evensong.” The bird, though such a struggling creature, sings its notes of hope, though everything else around it is falling apart. For the speaker, there is still a chance for things around him to be restored and life return to the way it once was.

Obedience and Rebellion in Sembene Ousmane’s God’s Bits of Wood and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus

The African continent, over many years, has suffered from internal conflict both religiously and politically. At times, it is a matter of Africans struggling to find peace with the white colonizers who make such an impact on their lives through imperialism and slavery. At other times, Africans experience turmoil within their own governments ruled by other Africans such as themselves. As groups of people pick a side, whether it is for authority or for those who campaign for liberty, turmoil ensues. Two famous African novels, God’s Bits of Wood (Sembene Ousmane) and Purple Hibiscus (Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie) both illustrate the deep issue of whether or humans should obey any authority without question or rebel against what they see as unreasonable.

In Ousmane’s work, the people of French West Africa (1947-1948) rebel against their own government. The reason is simple: there is rampant poverty in West Africa, and the ruling classes do not seem to want to offer a helping hand to the poor. Therefore, there is inequality in terms of class. Women join forces with those who cause a strike against the owners. The demand is that poverty be stopped by affording people new opportunities. However, there are those who question this kind of rebellion, holding on to a tradition of obedience to authority. A respected member of the community, Sérigne N’Dakarou, rebukes the women for their resistance to the government: “You burn the homes of innocent people, and you obstruct the law-you are behaving like infidels…what has happened, to make you abandon your homes and your children and roam the streets like this” (Ousmane 124). N’Dakarou accuses the women of injustice; in their rebellion, the women have interfered in the lives of those “innocent” people who have done them no harm whatsoever. In their rage, they have been hypocritical in being obstacles to justice. If they claim to rebel against a harsh government, why do they destroy innocent lives to achieve that purpose? They are behaving like “infidels,” a Muslim term for “unbeliever.” Not only have they mistreated one another in their passionate rebellion but have also rebelled against God. Thus, they will be harshly judged as a result. But the most significant harm they have done is not obeying the traditional role of motherhood. By participating in a pointless riot, they have neglected to feed their children and watch after them. Why will they put so much energy into chaos and not obeying the role of being a submissive mother instead? N’Dakarou argues that if they stay at home, obey the law, and take care of their children, then justice will surely come to Africa. Rebelling against this maxim only causes more problems. If they obey authority instead of questioning it, then peace will reign.

Yet the role of being a mother is the primary reason for rebelling against authority, according to Ramatoulaye, a struggling African mother. She has a conversation with Hadramé, a man who makes a living by selling rice. He is obligated to sell rice at a fair price, otherwise, the government will find out that he has been too lenient to the poor: “They know everything I do” (Ousmane 42). Yet Ramatoulaye begs him for at least two pounds of rice to feed her starving children: “You have no heart…give me two pounds just- enough to cheat the hunger” (Ousmane 42-43). Hadramé would gladly give Ramatoulaye some rice if not out of fear of being disciplined by the government. The government surveys his every move, and if he rebels against them, then he will be punished. As a result, he does not live in love for his fellow man but out of fear of punishment. Thus, Ramatoulaye’s accusation stands true. In her eyes, it is far more important to help someone who struggles with poverty than obey a strict authoritarian rule. To extend love to another, one must sometimes disobey their own standards of conduct. Even though Ramatoulaye’s suggestion rebels against Hadramé’s ethics of obeying his station in life, her rebellion is quite minor compared to the violence of the village women. Afterall, she only wishes to “cheat hunger” for a small moment, not cause a violent revolution against the government. Ironically, by trying to persuade Hadramé to sell his rice to her cheap, she exemplifies the need for a greater good than obedience, namely, love for one’s neighbor. She simply needs help in feeding her children as a mother. That concept (helping humans support their families) was the ideal goal of government control in the first place. Yet Hadramé’s stubbornness gets in the way of love, for he refuses to disobey his government.

The conflict between rebellion and obedience is also prevalent in Adichie’s novel Purple Hibiscus. Kambili, a Nigerian girl raised by a strict religious father, Eugene, is always in compliance with his authority. She follows Eugene’s every move and cannot question the things that he teaches her. She even reaches a point in compliance to where she loves Eugene for everything he is: “…most of what Papa said sounded important…I would focus on his lips, the movement, and sometimes I forgot myself” (Adichie 25). Kambili is so devoted to her father that she focuses on everything he does. Kambili believes in her father’s authority for she thinks that everything he says will have an important effect on her life. So she must listen to him in all things. In so doing she “forgets herself.” She ceases to be an individual in her own right. Her own personal dreams and desires have no importance. But the idea of rebellion is shocking to her. On a fateful day, her brother Jaja refuses to partake in communion, to the distress of Eugene. Kambili thinks “I stared at Jaja. Had something come loose in his head” (Adichie 6). Kambili believes that Jaja is not acting reasonably by not going by her father’s schedule. She isn’t used to the idea that someone can veer off course from Eugene’s strict plan. So Jaja’s disobedience can only be seen as something irrational, completely crazy at worst. Her dependence on Eugene has led her to no other conclusion. Jaja’s disobedience to Eugene shocks her, for she was never open to the idea that anything could undermine her father’s rule. As a child who needs a leader, her dependence is to be expected.

Yet Kambili finds herself undermining the values that her father has placed upon her once she visits her grandfather, Papa Nunwuku. Eugene solely forbids Kambili and Jaja to never take part in a feast dedicated to pagan idolatry. But Kambili is put into that position when her grandfather is eating. Jaja warns her to leave so as to obey Eugene’s religious authority. Kambili, however, has different plans: “I wanted to stay so that if the fufu clung to Papa Nunwuku’s throat and choked him, I could run and get him water” (Adichie 66). Kambili’s reasoning is simple enough; she desires to watch over her grandfather in case something happens to him while he is eating. She simply wants to care for another, just like Ramatoulaye in God’s Bits of Wood. Yet her decision is significant. By staying with Papa Nunwuku, she is participating in an immoral action in terms of Eugene’s Christianity. By remaining at the dinner, she no longer complies with her father’s wishes. Yet her desire is not destructive but loving. She only wants to keep another safe. But in order to this she must resist what she has been taught her whole life. This rebellion against her own convictions sets the stage for her to see life differently, that it isn’t based upon a stern adherence to authority but mutual love. Ironically, she thought it was loving to obey her father in all things but ends up turning against that notion to help another.

The conclusion that the reader can draw from these two African masterpieces is that, though authority and rebellion constitute a lifelong struggle in Africa, the underlying reason of it all is love. People are willing to submit to the harshest tyranny simply because they have affection towards the one they obey. Even if the other treats them terribly, they wish to serve them out of sheer kindness. At the same time, those who rebel against authority desire justice for others, for others to be free. Liberty becomes their slogan for justice all over the world, not only in Africa. As a result, one may conclude that love is the primary motivation for both obedience and rebellion. The fact alone is quite optimistic, for it teaches, as the old saying goes that “Love Conquers All.”

Works Cited

            Adichie, Chimamanda Ngozi. Purple Hibiscus. New York: Anchor Books, 2003. Print.

Ousmane, Sembene. God’s Bits of Wood. England: Heinemann, 1962. Print.