The Sound of the Discontented

The Sound of Trees

BY ROBERT FROST

I wonder about the trees.
Why do we wish to bear
Forever the noise of these
More than another noise
So close to our dwelling place?
We suffer them by the day
Till we lose all measure of pace,
And fixity in our joys,
And acquire a listening air.
They are that that talks of going
But never gets away;
And that talks no less for knowing,
As it grows wiser and older,
That now it means to stay.
My feet tug at the floor
And my head sways to my shoulder
Sometimes when I watch trees sway,
From the window or the door.
I shall set forth for somewhere,
I shall make the reckless choice
Some day when they are in voice
And tossing so as to scare
The white clouds over them on.
I shall have less to say,
But I shall be gone.



The first question the speaker asks concerning the trees is why do he and others bear their noise all the time (lines 3-4)? Apparently they annoy the speaker to the point of exasperation: “We suffer them by the day/ Till we lose all measure of pace/ And fixity in our joys/ And acquire a listening air (lines 6-9). The speaker and his friends, at one point, had their lives together the way they wished; but the trees’ noise impedes on their tranquility, demanding their attention. They lose sight of their goals due to all the rambling. But could the trees be symbols for a certain group of people? Who exactly does the speaker feel compelled to listen to?  Lines 10-11 say “They are that that talks of going/ But never gets away/ And that talks no less for knowing/ As it grows wiser and older.” The trees represent a specific type of people, those who, in their hypocrisy, speak much truth and wisdom concerning life but who never enact their tenets. They do not reinforce their wisdom by their conduct. They may gain more knowledge in their learning but they fail to apply their knowledge practically. There is a sense of fleeting time, making the issue desperate, since the trees age but never really get any smarter. And the specific moral in these lines points to experiencing life and not remaining dormant. The speaker believes it is important to leave the confines of traditional wisdom and make a name for oneself. This is particularly true if the dominant morality ironically works against the very thing it is supposed to defend. Freedom would be preferable against such an irrational double standard. The world waits, waiting to be explored.

As the poem progresses, the listener learns that the speaker is no different than the hypocrites which he is condemning. He himself needs to break free from society’s chains and live. In lines 16-17, the trees swaying is compared to the swaying of the speaker’s head. Despite the fact that the trees are currently rooted, they want to move and be in constant motion. The speaker wants to usher in a new existence for himself, even if that means rebelling against the prevailing morality. After all, the speaker desires to make a “reckless choice” (line 20). What he wants would never be approved by others. Yet these same others want to be reckless as well. Can they not make up their mind? What do they want: subservient obedience to mindless authority or liberty?

But the speaker does not want to act alone. He wants to wait until the trees have “a voice” (line 21). It would better if the public rebelled against dominant wisdom together instead of in isolation. But the question remains: will the speaker depend on others forever? Or will he leave all the mindless idealism and live on his own? People tend to face this question. Especially when they decide to dedicate themselves to their goals without question and in disregard to those who keeps others from living their dreams. You can stay still. Or move.

The American Dream

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby was published in the 1920’s, the jazz age of America. One critic has noted that at the time “gin and sex were the national obsession.” Americans chased whatever gave them happiness (as they still do today). If it felt good at the time, it was deemed acceptable, whether morally correct or not. The novel is told from the viewpoint of a first person narrator named Nick, a man trying to make a living in America. Nick relates some events that transpired around Long Island, New York, events that would affect him deeply. None of the events concern him, however, but other characters instead.

Rich Jay Gatsby entertains thousands with his luxuriant parties and festivities. Nick attends each nightly revel, celebrating the endless varieties of entertainment available to the visitors. Nick looks for Gatsby, wishing to meet him, for he was invited to attend the parties by Gatsby himself. When Nick finally meets the famous man, he is charmed by Gatsby’s kind disposition. But he doesn’t manage to learn much about Gatsby; there is mystery still. Until, that is, one day when Gatsby decides to take Nick with him in the city, introducing him to new people and places. Nick learns that Gatsby has had an interesting history, one involving war and adventure. He didn’t start out as rich but made his way to the top, though many suspect him of being a bootlegger (a person smuggling profitable alcohol into the market during the time of Prohibition).  

By talking to a girl named Jordan, Nick learns that Gatsby is in love with Daisy, a rich lady who lives across form Gatsby’s mansion. Gatsby has been throwing his parties, not so much for the rich public, but for Daisy, in the hope that she will visit him. Gatsby has a romantic history with Daisy, back in the time he was off to fight in World War I. But there is a huge problem; Daisy is currently married to a snob named Tom. Tom cheats on Daisy on a regular basis with another lady in the slums of New York, where poor workers labor under the eyes of Dr. Eckelberg (a street sign showing a large pair of blue eyes under wire spectacles). Daisy, in spite of the fact she’s married to Tom, decides to elope with Gatsby. Nick suddenly finds himself in a whirlwind of passion and deception, being the narrator who sees all these things transpire right in front of his eyes.  

Tom notices Daisy’s attraction to Gatsby and tries to insult him by questioning his roots. One afternoon, Gatsby leaves with Daisy in his yellow car, while Tom rides away with Nick and Jordan. As the night progresses, Nick learns that the girl Tom was seeing was killed by Gatsby’s car, putting her husband, Wilson, into a state of perpetual grief. Nick finds Gatsby, infuriated at him for hiding from the police. But Gatsby reveals that it was Daisy who drove his car out of control. Tom puts Wilson on the track of Gatsby, lying to him about what an evil man Gatsby is. Wilson murders Gatsby outside his mansion and commits suicide. Demoralized by the fact Daisy turns back to Tom for security, Nick concludes that they both “were careless people,” people who destroyed lives and left others to clean up their messes.

The novel ends by mentioning the green light; throughout the book, Nick notices Gatsby reaching towards the light, longing for Daisy. Over the years, literary critics suggest that the green light is a symbol for desire itself, or, more in the context of America, “The American Dream.” The United States presents an ideal, that humans can pursue any road they choose to, that they can live happy and fulfilling lives. What this means is different for different people. For Nick, it is a much needed job, for Gatsby, Daisy, for Tom, women in general, and for Wilson’s wife, the desire to escape a poor existence. It seems that Fitzgerald wants the reader to see that desire does not always pay off in the end; by pursuing a dangerous female, Gatsby endangers his life and ultimately pays a heavy price. But for Gatsby, nothing could be more important than reclaiming the past and an existence full of sweetness. Gatsby is essentially chasing his dreams, fully confident he will succeed. I enjoy seeing the novel this way. It teaches me that, even if what you desire is risky, it’s much better to have something to live for than hide in safety all your life. We all must take a risk in life eventually. Otherwise, have we truly lived? And relying on wisdom isn’t always the best, seeing as conventional wisdom tends to differ among many people. One must decide for themselves what is best. 

The book may also question as to whether or not God exists for our favor. The eyes of Eckelberg have come to allude to God Himself. But the eyes on the sign simply watch. There is no sense that justice has been executed by God by the end of the novel since Tom and Daisy triumph in their foolishness. The world Fitzgerald presents is a world of capitalism, one where competition rules and each person must fend for themselves. But this seems to be more of a plight for the poor than the rich. Fitzgerald may be questioning capitalistic society, whether or not sprawling business is worth it in the end. Or, whether or not it is a just system for Americans. On the other hand, since Gatsby has a generous heart towards others, Fitzgerald may be presenting an uncommon view of the rich; they are well mannered and fair. This view most likely will not fly with the poor. The rich are often seen as corrupt and maniacal. Either way, the reader has liberty to interpret what they will and conclude accordingly. 

The reason Fitzgerald’s novel is a classic is that it presents a historical, distinctly American era that universally resonates with us still. Issues concerning the rich and poor have never been more prevalent, and in a failing economy, the question as to whether the American Dream needs to be evaluated still lingers. In the end, though, humans will still pursue their dreams, no matter what the cost.  

The Poet as a Vehicle for Social Justice

Poets sometimes attempt to present a social issue through the voice of a speaker lamenting the shortcomings of humanity. Melvin B. Tolson, William Shakespeare, and George Moses Horton each speak of contemporary dilemmas concerning justice and vengeance. The reader obtains special insight into the individual as well as the collective public in regards to this issue.

Melvin B. Tolson’s “An Ex-Judge at the Bar,” presents an ex-judge who seems to have abandoned the principles of justice. In the poem’s first quatrain, the speaker addresses a bartender, saying “Now let us put our heads together: one/ Is half enough for malice, sense, or fun” (lines 3-4). The word “malice” seems to stand out from the words “sense” and “fun;” malice is a brutal emotion geared towards hatred, while “sense” denotes rationale and “fun” a certain playfulness. The reader wonders as to why this negative word belongs alongside words representing positive feelings. In the second quatrain, the speaker tells of how the law “rips with fang and claw (line 6). There is a sense that the standard of justice is ruthless and unforgiving. Lines 7-8 say “When Pilate washed his hands, that neat event/ Set for us judges a Caesarean precedent.” The word “precedent” is a term often used to refer as to how legal proceedings are executed in the court of law. “Pilate” refers to the Roman governor, who, under the rule of Emperor Julius Caesar, had Jesus Christ sent to His death on the cross. Believing the Jews to be the ultimate prosecutors of Christ (who was innocent), Pilate attempts to assuage his guilty conscience by washing his hands of the matter. Yet in reality, the governor remains guilty. The speaker apparently compares present day justices with this example of legal corruption. Justice transforms into a woman persona accusing the speaker: “To gain the judge’s seat, you twined the noose/ That swung the Negro higher than a goose” (lines 23-24). The speaker now reveals his own sense of guilt and the reason why he is no longer a judge; he is responsible for unlawfully accusing African Americans of crime and having them prosecuted. Justice is no longer served in the speaker’s life, and he contributes to the problem. Justice acts “like a maniac on a broken phonograph” (line 30). The poet wants the reader to see the injustices blacks suffer at the hands of society, from a system that no longer functions the way it should. Like Langston Hughes, Tolson demonstrates the ability to articulate racial issues and strivings for a true love of black people” (Alexander).  He wants to raise awareness that blacks are in need of social justice and that the playing field is not yet equal for them.

Like most Elizabethan poets, Shakespeare attempts to render the inner workings of the mind, exploring the psychology of perception (The Poetry Foundation). Shakespeare’s poem “Sonnet CXXXIII: Beshrew that heart that makes my heart to groan,” is a sonnet; the sonnet form consists of fourteen lines of rhymed iambic pentameter and two parts called a proposition and a resolution (Richardson 1). The speaker of the poem blames another for the torment that he and another suffer: “Beshrew that heart that makes my heart to groan/ For that deep wound it gives my friend and me” (lines 1-2). The speaker is cursing the control the addressee has over him and his friend by unjustly abusing them. But the poem’s resolution offers a stunning twist for the reader: the speaker and the addressee are one in the same. He is the one torturing him and his friend. The last two lines say: “for I, being pent in thee/ Perforce am thine, and all that is in me.” The word “heart” is repeated often in the poem as the internal seat of affections, so it may not be much of a surprise that Shakespeare gives the reader a close up of the inner workings of the individual. Instead of broadly condemning society at large for injustice, Shakespeare gives the reader a view of a person who abuses another and what affect that has on him. It could even be considered a type of confessional poem, one that tells of a speaker’s secrets. The speaker apparently suffers under his thirst for unlawful dominance since his heart is wounded by his own tortures.

George Moses Horton’s poem, “Weep,” tells of a man lamenting the shortcomings of society. As for form, it is an elegy, which is a poem dedicated to mourning the death of an individual or a group of people. The difference between an individual elegy and a public mourning is that they turn away from the memorialization of personhood to exhort the reader to do something besides reflect on the brevity and existential scandal of death (Hacker 1). In this case, the speaker mourns for a country that has not managed to do so; they have failed to correct injustice and now they suffer the consequences. The death of so many soldiers has left the speaker in a state of perpetual grief. They fell from “the hatchet of their pride/ Then like the serpent bit themselves and died” (lines 15-16). The “serpent” alludes to a symbol for Satan in the Garden of Eden (as told in the biblical book of Genesis). It is also a symbol of lies and deception, falsehoods that veer people away from truth and the way things should be. The last six lines explain the core reason behind the war: financial troubles. The speaker’s society attempts to use unlawful money to regulate the country, much to the country’s expense: “Their foundless notes replete with shame to all/ In quest of profit never to be won/ Then sadly fallen and forever down” (lines 23, 25 and 26). The bank notes are worthless in that they do not provide sound, actual money for the nation’s citizens. Because of this, people must deal with money that will fail them in their pursuit of false aims and goals. This instance illustrates how society must work together to achieve honest ends and social justice. Otherwise, the results will return to haunt its members.

WORKS CITED
Alexander, Elizabeth. “The Black Poet as Canon-Maker: Langston Hughes and the Road to the New Negro Poets. The Black Interior. Graywolf Press, Saint Paul, Minnesota. 2004.

Hacker, Marilyn. “Can Poetry Console a Grieving Public?” The Poetry Foundation. Chicago, IL 12 Sept. 2006.

Richardson, Rachel. “Learning the Sonnet.” The Poetry Foundation. Chicago, IL. 29 Aug. 2013.

Unknown. “William Shakespeare.” The Poetry Foundation. Chicago, IL. 1 Nov. 2013.

Sonnet CXXXIII: Beshrew that heart that makes my heart to groan

BY WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE

Beshrew that heart that makes my heart to groan

For that deep wound it gives my friend and me:

Is’t not enough to torture me alone,

But slave to slavery my sweet’st friend must be?

Me from myself thy cruel eye hath taken,

And my next self thou harder hast engrossed;

Of him, myself, and thee I am forsaken,

A torment thrice threefold thus to be crossed.

Prison my heart in thy steel bosom’s ward,

But then my friend’s heart let my poor heart bail;

Whoe’er keeps me, let my heart be his guard:

Thou canst not then use rigour in my jail.

And yet thou wilt; for I, being pent in thee,

Perforce am thine, and all that is in me.

An Ex-Judge at the Bar

BY MELVIN B. TOLSON

Bartender, make it straight and make it two—

One for the you in me and the me in you.

Now let us put our heads together: one

Is half enough for malice, sense, or fun.

I know, Bartender, yes, I know when the Law

Should wag its tail or rip with fang and claw.

When Pilate washed his hands, that neat event

Set for us judges a Caesarean precedent.

What I shall tell you now, as man is man,

You’ll find in neither Bible nor Koran.

It happened after my return from France

At the bar in Tony’s Lady of Romance.

We boys drank pros and cons, sang Dixie; and then,

The bar a Sahara, we pledged to meet again.

But lo, on the bar there stood in naked scorn

The Goddess Justice, like September Morn.

Who blindfolds Justice on the courthouse roof

While the lawyers weave the sleight-of-hand of proof?

I listened, Bartender, with my heart and head,

As the Goddess Justice unbandaged her eyes and said:

“To make the world safe for Democracy,

You lost a leg in Flanders fields—oui, oui?

To gain the judge’s seat, you twined the noose

That swung the Negro higher than a goose.”

Bartender, who has dotted every i?

Crossed every t? Put legs on every y?

Therefore, I challenged her: “Lay on, Macduff,

And damned be him who first cries, ‘Hold, enough!’”

The boys guffawed, and Justice began to laugh

Like a maniac on a broken phonograph.

Bartender, make it straight and make it three—

One for the Negro . . . one for you and me.

Weep

BY GEORGE MOSES HORTON

Weep for the country in its present state,

And of the gloom which still the future waits;

The proud confederate eagle heard the sound,

And with her flight fell prostrate to the ground!

Weep for the loss the country has sustained,

By which her now dependent is in jail;

The grief of him who now the war survived,

The conscript husbands and the weeping wives!

Weep for the seas of blood the battle cost,

And souls that ever hope forever lost!

The ravage of the field with no recruit,

Trees by the vengeance blasted to the root!

Weep for the downfall o’er your heads and chief,

Who sunk without a medium of relief;

Who fell beneath the hatchet of their pride,

Then like the serpent bit themselves and died!

Weep for the downfall of your president,

Who far too late his folly must repent;

Who like the dragon did all heaven assail,

And dragged his friends to limbo with his tail!

Weep o’er peculiar swelling coffers void,

Our treasures left, and all their banks destroyed;

Their foundless notes replete with shame to all,

Expecting every day their final fall,

In quest of profit never to be won,

Then sadly fallen and forever down!

Diminished Hope

The Oven Bird

BY ROBERT FROST

There is a singer everyone has heard,
Loud, a mid-summer and a mid-wood bird,
Who makes the solid tree trunks sound again.
He says that leaves are old and that for flowers
Mid-summer is to spring as one to ten.
He says the early petal-fall is past
When pear and cherry bloom went down in showers
On sunny days a moment overcast;
And comes that other fall we name the fall.
He says the highway dust is over all.
The bird would cease and be as other birds
But that he knows in singing not to sing.
The question that he frames in all but words
Is what to make of a diminished thing.

 

Robert Frost’s poem, “The Oven Bird,” tells of a chirping bird making noises throughout the seasons of the year. The poem digresses by beginning with thoughts on spring and summer and then arriving at fall and winter. The bird serves as a metaphor of the average human being, a person who desires to remain optimistic in the face of death and decay.

The bird’s message is universal, as the poem’s first line indicates; everyone can relate to the sound they hear. The bird’s words are “loud” in that they are inescapable and unmistakable. They define experience. “D” consonants appear at the end of many of the poem’s words, highlighting the sounds the bird makes. In its present state, the bird desires to return to spring: “He says that leaves are old and that for flowers/ Mid-summer is to spring as one to ten” (lines 4-5). The speaker uses a simile to contrast the now hot summer with the past spring: flowers are more prevalent in spring than summer. On a scale from one to ten, summer falls as a one in terms of personal value to the bird. Spring is preferable, being the best season of the year. There is even a time “when pear and sherry blooms went down in showers” (line 7). Spring once ruled the bird’s life, or, should we rather say, the speaker’s life? There was a time where happiness and new life reigned for him, domineering over all his circumstances. On a broader scale, humans want to look back at moments that were more fulfilling as they feel the rush of time carry them towards death.

But a shift in tone occurs in the middle of the poem. The speaker must now face a failing of the vibrant natural life. Lines 9-10 say “And comes that other fall we name the fall/ He says the highway dust is over all.” The speaker is doing much more than merely describing the effects of the fall season. There are several key phrases in the lines. First, there is “dust.” This may allude to the book of Genesis in the Bible, where God created mankind “out of the dust of the earth.” The subject of the poem seems to be about mankind in general. What the bird relates specifically concerns people everywhere in all times and places. The second phrase is “the fall.” This points to the disobedience of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eve (also in the book of Genesis). Because of Adam and Eve’s rebellion against God, mankind inherited the state of being sinful, prone to be and do evil in God’s eyes. People must live in life carrying the burden of their guilt and pain, whether they wish to or not. Life has made sense for the speaker until he discovers the revelation of his own sin. The bird will ask “what to make of a diminished thing” (line 14). How can the speaker explain the demoralization that takes root in his heart, distilling the happiness that he once had? The sadness he experiences has taken over the mood. Winter has arrived.

Childhood

Birches

BY ROBERT FROST

When I see birches bend to left and right
Across the lines of straighter darker trees,
I like to think some boy’s been swinging them.
But swinging doesn’t bend them down to stay
As ice-storms do. Often you must have seen them
Loaded with ice a sunny winter morning
After a rain. They click upon themselves
As the breeze rises, and turn many-colored
As the stir cracks and crazes their enamel.
Soon the sun’s warmth makes them shed crystal shells
Shattering and avalanching on the snow-crust—
Such heaps of broken glass to sweep away
You’d think the inner dome of heaven had fallen.
They are dragged to the withered bracken by the load,
And they seem not to break; though once they are bowed
So low for long, they never right themselves:
You may see their trunks arching in the woods
Years afterwards, trailing their leaves on the ground
Like girls on hands and knees that throw their hair
Before them over their heads to dry in the sun.
But I was going to say when Truth broke in
With all her matter-of-fact about the ice-storm
I should prefer to have some boy bend them
As he went out and in to fetch the cows—
Some boy too far from town to learn baseball,
Whose only play was what he found himself,
Summer or winter, and could play alone.
One by one he subdued his father’s trees
By riding them down over and over again
Until he took the stiffness out of them,
And not one but hung limp, not one was left
For him to conquer. He learned all there was
To learn about not launching out too soon
And so not carrying the tree away
Clear to the ground. He always kept his poise
To the top branches, climbing carefully
With the same pains you use to fill a cup
Up to the brim, and even above the brim.
Then he flung outward, feet first, with a swish,
Kicking his way down through the air to the ground.
So was I once myself a swinger of birches.
And so I dream of going back to be.
It’s when I’m weary of considerations,
And life is too much like a pathless wood
Where your face burns and tickles with the cobwebs
Broken across it, and one eye is weeping
From a twig’s having lashed across it open.
I’d like to get away from earth awhile
And then come back to it and begin over.
May no fate willfully misunderstand me
And half grant what I wish and snatch me away
Not to return. Earth’s the right place for love:
I don’t know where it’s likely to go better.
I’d like to go by climbing a birch tree,
And climb black branches up a snow-white trunk
Toward heaven, till the tree could bear no more,
But dipped its top and set me down again.
That would be good both going and coming back.
One could do worse than be a swinger of birches.
Robert Frost’s poem, “Birches,” tells of a speaker’s longing to return to the days of his youth; as a child, he would swing on birches for fun, being away from the hustle and bustle of the world. Since he had no friends in those days, he would isolate himself from society and enjoy his privacy. Yet now, as he is describing birches, he must face his present responsibilities with people. He has to own up to the fact that life is difficult even as he struggles to maintain sweet memories. Thus, the poem traces a conflict between realism and fantasy.

In the poem’s third line, the speaker mentions that when he sees birches he would “like to think some boy’s been swinging them.” There is a personal interpretation to the birches being worn down for the speaker as we will see later.  But he then says that ice storms wear the birches down better than boys swinging on them (line 5). He then proceeds to describe the process by which ice melts off the birches. In this section, the speaker will relate the birches to his own personal feelings: “And they seem not to break; though once they are bowed/ So low for long, they never right themselves” (lines 15-16). The birches seem to not break in that the speaker, though he may look to others as if he has his life under control, does not. He tries to make up appearances to please others. He has been bowed by the “ice storms” of life in that the life he has lived has been a turbulent existence as an adult. So hiding his pain is a difficult process. He cannot fully recover from some of the things he has suffered: the birches will never right themselves again. Indeed his pain has been so intense that “you would think the inner dome of heaven had fallen” (line 13). What seemed at time to be a peaceful childhood for the speaker eventually gave way to a much harsher existence. The speaker, once at the prime of life, now suffers under old age.

We see this in the next lines of the poem. The speaker chides Truth for interrupting his thoughts about the boy swinging on the birches with its “matter of fact” ways (lines 21-22). The speaker is angry that his sub-conscious mind demands an adherence to facts and not comforting fantasy. He wants to return to the days in which he was isolated from others, having liberty to play alone and be his own person. After he describes his childhood and experiences with birches, he goes back to the present tense regarding his life: “So was I once myself a swinger of birches/ And so I dream of going back to be” (lines 41-42). His dreams have been longings to return to a past that was easy and simple for him. But these days he lives under a harsher reality.

But interestingly enough, the speaker does not want to run away from his present existence forever. He will not abandon his duties towards other people. The speaker says “May no fate willfully misunderstand me/ And half grant what I wish and snatch me away/ Not to return. Earth’s the right place for love/ I don’t know where it’s likely to get better” (lines 51-54). The speaker desires to live in the here and now; though he may suffer at times, he does not truly believe in another ideal place for better happiness. He may even be questioning Heaven’s existence by thinking that Earth is the only right place for love. But then, who needs to be loved in Heaven seeing as those in Heaven are perfect and totally fulfilled? On Earth, we suffer, so we need loving care from others. If he withdraws form society, it is only long enough to recuperate and return to his daily routine. He just wants a brief outlet of escapism, and dreaming of his childhood allows him to do just that.

The Connection between Rationality and Insanity in William Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Macbeth

William Shakespeare’s tragic characters, revered for their emotional complexities, remain as intriguing today as ever. Hamlet, centering on a Danish prince’s quest to seek the truth concerning his father’s murder, contains instances of tragedy and triumph as the young man learns the difficult lessons surrounding revenge. Macbeth tells of a King’s limitless thirst for bloodshed and how he never quite gains a sense of security from his villainous schemes. Thus what starts for Macbeth as a murder that promised the fulfillment of destiny turns into a first step leading towards a progressive downfall. Many comparative themes connect Shakespeare’s plays, and these two are no exception; characters in both works demonstrate the timeless paradox between obeying one’s reason and giving in to insanity.

            At the beginning of the play, Hamlet acts melancholy and distant from all the other actors in the royal court. And actors they are, for they hide their true intentions from the prince on a regular basis. Hamlet, demoralized by the hypocrisy around him, says “by a sleep we say end/ The heart-ache, and the thousand-natural shocks/ That flesh is heir to, ‘tis a consummation/ Devoutly to be wisht” (III, i). On pondering whether or not he should avenge the death of his father, Hamlet wonders if taking action would be worth it. In these lines, he seems to be supporting the notion that it would be better if he were dead. He views life as something so unbearable that he can hardly take it anymore. His “flesh is heir” to his pain meaning that it is his destiny that he suffer such agony. Is Hamlet beginning to lose his mind due to the terrible truth he knows concerning his father’s murder? Is he pondering suicide? According to W.F. Bynum and Michael Neve, Hamlet would usually be seen as going insane at this point. By early Victorian times, when psychiatric comments on Hamlet began, suicide had been more or less medicated; it was seen as a symptom of excessive melancholy or various form of mania such as homicidal or erotic monomania (Bynum 394). These critics believed Hamlet’s sadness had reached an unhealthy pitch, confirming a warning made to Hamlet earlier about excessive grief being detrimental to one’s health. With homicidal mania being a tendency could explain why Hamlet later goes on his avenging mission in the play. And too, erotic mania could suggest that he had something unlawful to do with Ophelia. Yet these critics don’t entertain the idea that Hamlet could still be rational during his perpetual grief; by noticing the blatant hypocrisy in others, does that not make him more rational than insane? Maybe Hamlet simply suffers due to the dishonor that others have treated his father’s legacy.   

            King Claudius, Hamlet’s uncle, sends Polonius, an arrogant tongue twister, to inquire as to why Hamlet acts extremely gloomy and unintelligible. Polonius wants to catch Hamlet in the act, for he does not trust the prince at all, especially when the matter concerns Ophelia. As Hamlet indirectly insults Polonius, Polonius gives an aside to the audience: “Though this be madness, yet there is method in it” (II, ii). Earlier in the scene, Polonius defines madness as “what is’t but to be nothing else but mad” (II, ii.). Yet if Hamlet construes a witty and cunning method to call Polonius out on his spying him, then is Hamlet truly mad? Madness denotes a loss of reason and the ability to think on a rational level. But if Hamlet uses enough sense to try to trick people into their own traps, then he must be sane on some level still; he only acts insane so as to get a response. What appears to Polonius to be the ravings of a lunatic is actually the cunning of a brilliant actor. In fact, Polonius, not Hamlet, may be the one who fails to act rationally. His dialogue points to him being incoherent and failing to make sense. In talking to the King and Queen about Hamlet’s “lunacy,” Polonius says “Mad let us grant him, then: now remains/ That we find the cause of this effect,-/ Or rather say, the cause of this defect,/ For this effect defective comes by cause” (II, ii). In his self-contradictory and inverted phrasing, Polonius reveals that he has no grounding in reason, that he even does not know what truth is. It seems as if he struggles to get his thoughts out, whereas Hamlet, though acting like a lunatic, can still speak creatively. Polonius, caught in his spiteful ways towards the prince, actually merits no sense of appreciation in terms of rationale.

            Hamlet follows his mother, Gertrude, after confirming the King’s guilt relating to King Hamlet’s murder. Hamlet talks to the ghost, who reappears before him. On asking Gertrude whether or not she sees the ghost, she replies “Nothing at all; yet all that is I see” (III, iv). The reader must now choose a person to believe: Gertrude or Hamlet. Gertrude is under the impression that Hamlet has lost his mind; yet her incestual relationship with Claudius prompts the audience to doubt her beliefs. But if Gertrude is right, then only Hamlet can see the ghost, therefore making him insane by rational standards. Hamlet begins to suspect his passion for justice is up for criticism. He admits to Gertrude: “Forgive me this my virtue/ For in the fatness of these pursy times/ Virtue itself of vice must pardon beg” (III, iv). Hamlet questions the reason behind his pursuing justice. In overwhelming Gertrude emotionally, he has overstepped his bounds.  He sees himself, at the moment, as a fanatic who has failed to exercise restraint. Yet the fact that Hamlet exercises self-control still, and the fact that he apologizes to his mother show that he still has reason within him, the ability to think clearly about the situation. He also continues to show empathy towards Gertrude and the willingness to forgive her. He hasn’t succumbed to murder, at least not yet.

             Hamlet tragically murders Polonius, believing him to be Claudius behind a curtain. This instance is when the prince, in the heat of the moment due to his thirst for revenge, makes a dire mistake. He has drifted from his purpose. Indeed, he will later confess to Laertes, before he fights him, that it was due to his madness that he murdered Polonius (Bynum 392).  Yet Hamlet does not fully relinquish his faith that he is essentially sane and rational. In the last act, Hamlet tells Laertes: “Was’t Hamlet wronged Laertes? Never Hamlet/ Who does it, then? His madness: if’t be so/ Hamlet is of the faction that is wrong’d/ His madness is poor Hamlet’s enemy” (V, ii). There exists a deep difference in Hamlet’s psyche; on the one hand, he follows conscience and reason, but on the other hand, he gives in to excessive emotions. But so much does the prince have faith in himself that he views the madness as something hardly a part of himself. He still desires to see himself as a noble man of reason and logic in the midst of all the confusion and terror around him, despite the fact that his actions have made others distrustful of him. Since he acknowledges his fault towards Laertes, he retains a sense of reason. If his shortcomings ever do rise, it’s temporary.  

            Hamlet’s actions affect Ophelia to the point to where she loses her rational and moral compass. And ironically, her “reasonable” role in society fails to save her from the despair and confusion that overtake her. King Claudius, on seeing Ophelia singing vague and confusing songs, interprets her to be singing about Polonius. The King remarks: “poor Ophelia/ Divided from herself and her fair judgment” (IV, v). Shakespeare has given the audience the logical basis for her insanity: she has no individuality, for she is trapped between loving Hamlet and being loyal to Polonius (Snider 85). Since her reliance has been on others, she now must think for herself (Snider 85). What holds Ophelia together at this point in the play has disappeared. The stress and mental difficulty in fending for herself drives her over the edge. All her life, her conscience was dictated by those around her (particularly Polonius). She followed those who advised her without question, believing it to be her reasonable duty. But now that her father is dead, her sense of reason has vanished. If logical absolutes no longer exist, then she has no choice to lose herself in her own despair. Ironically, her own moral compass served in leading her to her insanity.

            Macbeth also offers glimpses of the relationship between conscience (and reason) and insanity. Lady Macbeth has long been a classical example of this conflict. The audience knows (in a dramatically ironic sort of way, since the characters in the play are unaware) that Lady Macbeth assisted her husband in the murder of Duncan. One would think that the secret could easily be hidden since no one knows. But Lady Macbeth will soon suffer the pangs of conscience, which, in turn, will affect her reasoning faculties quite harshly. A doctor comes to see one of Lady Macbeth’s servants, inquiring as to why she has been mysteriously sleepwalking. Lady Macbeth, in their presence, says: “What, will these hands ne’er be clean/ Here’s the smell of blood still: all the/ perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand” (V,i). Lady Macbeth is completely convinced that blood covers her hands, despite the fact the doctor and the servant cannot see blood on her. She has tried all in her power to avoid the symbol of guilt and thus despairs that she is trapped by her murderous secret. It appears she has lost the ability to discern reality from illusion, therefore making her insane. And this is all because she sinned against her conscience. The doctor, dumbfounded at the queen, fails to act on her behalf. Paul H. Kocher examines varying beliefs on melancholy in Elizabethan England; his conclusion on Lady Macbeth’s predicament is that “It is not that Shakespeare, of all men, fails to see the interaction between body and soul. But to have allowed the Doctor any competence in treating Lady Macbeth would have entirely diminished his dramatic point. It was important to note that the sole fault of all her ills was not natural melancholy but the conscience” (Kocher 345). The issue is dramatic because the doctor cannot treat Lady Macbeth’s problem due to its source; since her problem is spiritual and not physical, he is unable to help her. Such a predicament heightens the sense of tragedy that pervades the play. It makes the audience feel helpless as well. The divine punishment that Lady Macbeth’s sin has brought on her is her loss of sanity. It would appear that sanity and conscience are dependent on one another in the mind of human beings.

            King Macbeth suffers under the same psychological pressures as his wife. Indeed, his hallucinations are more intense because he is the actual murderer of Duncan. His guilt and pain sting far more heavily than his wife’s. In his nervous chase to maintain his secret, he commits another murder by having his men kill Banquo, one of his closest friends. While he sits at the dinner table, Banquo’s ghost appears to him, yet only him, just like when Hamlet saw the ghost of his father in his mother’s room. Macbeth laments: “Avaunt! And quit my sight! Let the earth hide thee/ Thy bones are marrowless, thy blood is cold/ Thou hast no speculation in those eyes/ which thou dost glare with” (III, iv).  Besides the fact that Banquo being a ghost frightens the King, the ghost also reminds Macbeth of the crime he has previously orchestrated. It is a manifestation of the King’s guilty conscience, being a fragment of his disturbed and mentally unhinged mind. The “glare” bores into him, pinpointing his sin. The Ghost is visible to Macbeth alone; it only appears whenever he mentions it. This view is the most popular interpretation for most English critics in light of Macbeth’s phrase “My strange and self-abuse is the initiate fears that wants hard use” (Greg 394). Though Macbeth struggles to retain his sense of sanity after Banquo’s murder, he is still able to recognize that the ghost is merely the product of his own fears and doubts. His guilt and nervousness, though overwhelming him, do not yet conquer him fully. He is still thinking clearly at this point in the play.

            The Macbeths may not be the only ones suffering in then play from the war between madness and truth.  Banquo is also involved. Banquo and Macbeth are the only ones that spot the witches at the beginning. They are trying to figure out whether or not what they see is credible, as Hamlet tries to do with the ghost of King Hamlet. Banquo says “Upon her skinny lips:-you should be women/ and yet your beards forbid me to interpret/ that you are so” (I, iii). The fact that there is a contradiction in Banquo’s sight suggests that he could well be hallucinating.  The difficulty in distinguishing what sex the witches are points to a mental issue to be solved. The witches tell Macbeth that he will “get kings though thou be none” (I, iii). The prophecy is simple: Macbeth will become King though circumstances do not suggest it. But according to Arthur Kirsch “Sigmund Freud believes that animalistic thinking is still present in the adult life and that dream-works are a viable part of it” (Kirsch 282). If one holds to Freud’s analysis as a way to interpret the play’s opening, then they can conclude that the witch’s prophecy is nothing but the subconscious symbol of the power Macbeth and Banquo both desire. After having just retuned form one of the bloodiest battles in Scotland’s history, they would most likely desire a royal title to be revered by. What better title than King? For them, the reward would be the reasonable compensation for risking their lives. But for Macbeth, this desire takes over his life for the worse, gradually leading him down the path of insanity.

            In looking at both of Shakespeare’s plays, one might ask what is the true relationship regarding sanity and insanity? The two dispositions seem so linked together that it is almost impossible to distinguish either from the other. Macbeth, in pursuing his selfish desires with his wife’s help, brings a mental damnation on himself. Since he abandons reason to take a hold of power, he suffers by losing the will to control his thoughts. But Hamlet is the saner of the two; though the prince goes through many lengths to juggle his true self with feigning madness, he manages to retain a noble sense of justice, even through his own mistakes. With ambiguity pervading reason and madness, what people must ultimately ask themselves is how can we distinguish what is true and what is not? If we discern rightly, then we can avoid tragedy. But if we fail, then we pay unbearable prices, namely, our own sanity.

 

WORKS CITED

            Greg, W.W. “Hamlet’s Hallucination.” The Modern Language Review, Vol. 12, No.4. Oct. 1917, pp. 393-421.

            Kirsch, Arthur. “Macbeth’s Suicide.” ELH, Vol. 51, No. 2, (Summer 1984) pp. 269-296.

            Kocher, H. Paul. “Lady Macbeth and the Doctor.” Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 5, No. 4, (Autumn 1954) pp. 341-349.

            Neve, Michael and Bynum, W.F. “Hamlet on the Couch: Hamlet is a kind of touchstone by which to measure changing opinion-psychiatric and otherwise-about madness.” Amercian Scientist, Vol. 74, No.4(July to August 1986), p. 390-396.

            Snider, D.J. “Hamlet.” The Journal of Speculative Philosophy, Vol. 7, No. 3 (July 1873), pp.78-89.

 

           

                  

 

Things Fade in Time

Reluctance

BY ROBERT FROST

Out through the fields and the woods
   And over the walls I have wended;
I have climbed the hills of view
   And looked at the world, and descended;
I have come by the highway home,
   And lo, it is ended.


The leaves are all dead on the ground,
   Save those that the oak is keeping
To ravel them one by one
   And let them go scraping and creeping
Out over the crusted snow,
   When others are sleeping.


And the dead leaves lie huddled and still,
   No longer blown hither and thither;
The last lone aster is gone;
   The flowers of the witch hazel wither;
The heart is still aching to seek,
   But the feet question ‘Whither?’


Ah, when to the heart of man
   Was it ever less than a treason
To go with the drift of things,
   To yield with a grace to reason,
And bow and accept the end
   Of a love or a season?



Robert Frost’s poem, “Reluctance,” traces a speaker who, after experiencing the thrills and joys of life, realizes that death is approaching for him; the things that gave him happiness are now fading from his life. He can only become bitter as his days draw to a close. The speaker relies upon the images found in nature as well as using poetic techniques to present his timeless themes of prosperity and decay.

The speaker mentions that he has gone through “fields,” “woods,” slowly passed “walls,” and climbed “hills” in order to view the world (lines 1-4). The word “fields” may suggest times in his life where circumstances worked in his favor, giving him times of ease and comfort. Yet “woods” points more to times of uncertainty and confusion; since the woods are enshrouded with trees, they obstruct one’s view of the outside world. “Walls” and “hills” could be the challenges that the speaker has faced in order to reach his high points. But in spite of all he went through, the speaker enjoys the world in all of it’s splendor. Yet on returning home, the speaker’s tone changes dramatically: “And lo, it is ended” (lines 5-6).

It turns out that the happiness he expects from his endeavors is short-lived and is not destined to last long at all. There are dead leaves littering the ground (line 7). Those moments that were so full of life for the speaker are now gone, taken from him by the power of time. Meter also shows us the passing of time for the speaker from a state of happiness to one of melancholy. The words “scraping,” “creeping”, and “sleeping” occur in the second stanza. Besides being an instance of internal rhyme, each of the words contains a trochee, which is when a stressed beat is followed by an unstressed one. If one were to read the words out loud to his or herself, the pronunciation would sound like a fall. That is why this kind of succession of beats is known as a falling meter. The speaker “scraps” by, desperately trying to maintain hope in the midst of despair. It is interesting that the word “creeping” occurs; it often denotes a person stalking another human being. The last line mentions the speaker thinking it an evil thing for a ‘love” to end. Maybe the speaker once loved another but now despises them? Or maybe circumstances have taken someone he loves dearly? No one knows for sure what the speaker has lost. His “reluctance” could be his refusal to move on with his life, whether his significant other is alive or not. Thus, in the last analysis, the speaker refuses to let something go which means everything to him, once again demonstrating the power of Robert Frost to talk of the human condition using natural metaphors.