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.

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