The Poet’s Fear

“It would be a strange but not an inconceivable world; heroism and poetry at the bottom, cold scientific intellect above it, and overtopping all some dark superstition which scientific intellect, helpless against the revenge of the emotional depths it had ignored, had neither will nor power to remove.”

 

C.S. Lewis “Out of the Silent Planet”

 

 

 

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A Soldier’s Plight: A Brief Analysis of Alfred Lord Tennyson’s “The Charge of the Light Brigade.”

The Charge of the Light Brigade
BY ALFRED, LORD TENNYSON
I
Half a league, half a league,
Half a league onward,
All in the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.
“Forward, the Light Brigade!
Charge for the guns!” he said.
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.

II
“Forward, the Light Brigade!”
Was there a man dismayed?
Not though the soldier knew
Someone had blundered.
Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die.
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.

III
Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon in front of them
Volleyed and thundered;
Stormed at with shot and shell,
Boldly they rode and well,
Into the jaws of Death,
Into the mouth of hell
Rode the six hundred.

IV
Flashed all their sabres bare,
Flashed as they turned in air
Sabring the gunners there,
Charging an army, while
All the world wondered.
Plunged in the battery-smoke
Right through the line they broke;
Cossack and Russian
Reeled from the sabre stroke
Shattered and sundered.
Then they rode back, but not
Not the six hundred.

V
Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon behind them
Volleyed and thundered;
Stormed at with shot and shell,
While horse and hero fell.
They that had fought so well
Came through the jaws of Death,
Back from the mouth of hell,
All that was left of them,
Left of six hundred.

VI
When can their glory fade?
O the wild charge they made!
All the world wondered.
Honour the charge they made!
Honour the Light Brigade,
Noble six hundred!

 

 

When President George W. Bush sent American troops to Iraq in 2003, most Americans protested the decision, just as they did when troops entered the jungles of Vietnam in the 1960’s. In both cases, the nation felt that soldiers were being sent on a kind of suicide mission that had nothing to with national security or spreading democracy. As Nixon had done, Bush was merely helping to spread a tyrannous “patriotic” influence around the globe through the might of the military. “He just wants to protect his rich oil fields,” many complained. Why would soldiers be sent to risk their lives to fight meaningless battles just for the self interests of politicians? “War Pigs,” a dark 1960’s song by the band Black Sabbath, condemned American politicians as power hungry murderers who would soon be judged by the wrath of God.

 
Others saw the raid on Iraq as nothing more or less than a soldier’s duty to their nation, to bring the enemies of America to justice. Questioning orders would be an inappropriate response. Such disobedience dishonors one’s nation. Even from the days of the Anglo Saxons, when the epic poem Beowulf was first composed as one of the earliest forms of British literature, duty to one’s general was worthy of honor and respect. But if one turned on one’s leaders or failed to be heroic in the field of battle, they would be shunned as a coward for the rest of their lives.

 
In this brief essay, I will attempt to argue that Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem, “The Charge of the Light Brigade,” exemplifies this conflict between a soldier’s duty and a soldier’s questioning of authority. Tennyson published the poem during the Crimean War, which occurred from 1854-1856. It was a feud between the powers of Britain and Russia. Tennyson, on reading about the war in a newspaper, wrote the poem soon afterwards. The poem is based on the account of a group of British soldiers attacking a Russian front line due to some kind of misunderstanding between the soldiers and the generals. As for my own research, I don’t exactly know what went on between the soldiers and the leaders. Some have argued that, as a whole, the Crimean War was a meaningless trifle between Britains and Russians, a blight on British Victorian history. Tennyson recited his ballad as Britain’s poet laureate for Queen Victoria, when the soldiers who had died were being remembered for their charge. But how did Tennyson feel about the battle? Did he approve or disapprove?

 
The second stanza of the poem is particularly enlightening. It reads as follows:

 
“Forward the Light Brigade!”
Was there a man dismayed?”
Not though the soldier knew
-Someone had blundered.
Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die,
Into the Valley of Death
-Rode the six hundred

 

 

The question is whether the soldiers, on having to charge a heavily gunned battalion of Russians and Cossacks, are inwardly troubled by the orders they cannot understand. They seem to be confident in their duties, even though someone had “blundered” in theirs. The leaders, perhaps? The stupidity of the leaders intrudes on the valor and simplicity that the soldiers stand for. The line “Someone had blundered” occurs with a kind of indent, slowing the quick, flowing rhythm of the previous three lines. But the fighters do not question their orders. Indeed, it is not their place to do so, according to the speaker. They do not have the right, as military servants, to veer from the general’s commands. It is reminiscient of the old motif of a soldier’s duty, for therein lies their chief honor and glory. Their ultimate goal is “to do and die.” The readers of Tennyson’s day would have thought this to be the correct attitude. But to modern readers, and especially the ones after the First World War, with its unprecedented brutality, this attitude is unrealistic, for it fails to comprehend just how terrible and confusing war can become. If a soldier’s way is but to “do and die”, then they are discardable at best, humans who have lost their worth. They are disposable heroes.

 
The speed of the poem continues with rhymes such as “Flashed all their sabres bare/ Flashed as they turned in air/ Sabering the gunners there/ Charging an army” (Lines 26-30). As such the poem flows smoothly when spoken aloud. The verbs “Sabering, Charging, and Flashed” serve to give the listener a view of the intensity of the British Cavalrymen’s charge. But then another indented line occurs, once more dramatically slowing down the poem’s rhythm: “All the world wondered.” The line gives the reader the sense that they are watching the battle from a peaceful distance. And why does the world (surprisingly not just Britain!) wonder, or what are they wondering at? The valor of the Brigade, or the foolishness of their charge? Tennyson never elaborates. Such ambiguity makes the reader wonder as well, about exactly how to interpret the charge.
But the sixth stanza seems to indicate that Tennyson approved of the charge after all:

 
VI
When can their glory fade?
O the wild charge they made!
All the world wondered.
Honour the charge they made!
Honour the Light Brigade,
Noble six hundred!

 

 

By calling the Brigade noble, Tennyson deems their worth beyond measure, for their battle was more glorious than can be conceived. Yet one must remember that he recited this to Queen Victoria, during a memorial service honoring the fallen dead. Maybe Tennyson had no choice but to give the queen an honorable version of what was, in reality, a serious military blunder that cost a lot of lives. To reveal the skeletons in the closet would be most unwise. Otherwise, the poet would’ve been hounded out of Great Britain. Yet again, Britain, during the nineteenth century, expanded their Empire, and one of its chief glories was the might of their military, especially in their conquering vast, foreign terrains. Other writers such as Rudyard Kipling praised this power of Britain to spread its noble influence around the world. And being a part of the military was a primary part of this large European machine. A soldier’s obedience was one honor not to be shunned. Giving one’s life for their nation stood as the highest honor. Only later, in the dawn of the twentieth century, would the notion be seriously put to the test.

The Secular as a Religious Lesson: Spiritual Metaphors in John Donne’s Holy Sonnets and Hymns

 

There are important features that characterize the England of the 1600’s.  First, explorers, intent on expanding the English empire overseas, created new tools to aide sailors in navigating dangerous waters as well as constructing diagrams of the lands they would come to exploit for their gain. However, despite this national spirit urging workers to spread their influence across the globe,  growing civil war also threatened to disband the ties that kept the motherland intact (The English Civil War had not yet occurred but was on its way). The English monarchy, long despised by those who desired more civil liberty in politics and economics, seemed to be crumbling. Englishmen and women debated as to whether or not it was their duty to submit themselves to civil authority, and this rupture in opinion put everyone in the country in perpetual unrest. Resolutions were scarce.

 

Yet, in the midst of all the turmoil, Christianity, the religion that England had long used as the basis of their society’s structure, stood as the ultimate truth one could find peace and meaning in. John Donne, religious pastor and poet, writes about his world in relation to the one he admires above all: God. He uses poetry as a means to express both his knowledge of the world and religion. Thus, in his Holy Sonnets and Hymns, Donne employs secular metaphors to illustrate the spiritual truths of Christianity.

 

In Holy Sonnet XIV, “Batter my heart, three-personed God,” the speaker begs God to turn him away from his sins and back to holiness by using His own transformative power. Theologically, Donne illustrates that, unless the Holy Spirit convict the speaker’s heart of his own iniquity and bring him to repentance, the speaker will remain lost in his wickedness. In her article, “Donne’s Holy Sonnets: The Theology of Conversion,” Stephenie Yearwood explains that, “Conversion, for Donne, means an emotional adjustment that enables one to embrace doctrine. It also involves the difficult process in coming to accept one’s utter helplessness and total dependence on the divine will” (211). The speaker cannot love God with holy zeal unless God conditions him to so through His divine grace. Free will is not an option. The heart, being the seat of the emotions, needs to be spiritually regenerated if God is to be pleased with the speaker’s life.

 

But how does the speaker illumine this truth through secular images? Interestingly, the speaker compares God’s convicting power to the violence associated with the English civil war, how there was unrest in the public sphere. God is called on to “break, blow, and burn” (line 4). Each repetition of the “b” consonant gives the reader a feeling of destructive impact, like the force of a battering ram. By hearing these harsh intonations, the reader receives a sense of the destruction rampant in England, how protesters would resort to violent means to achieve their ends, whether political or religious or both. In this way, Donne draws from the unrest in his society to illumine the need for God’s might to convert the erring sinner from his sinful paths. Doors are broken down by thieves, fighters deal blows with one another, and houses and heretics are burned in broad daylight. These forces are similar to God’s sovereign abilities in their fierceness. In his trapped state of evil, the speaker says, “I, like an usurped town, to another due/ Labor to admit you” (lines 5-6). The speaker, in his failed struggle to escape sin, is like a town being seized by invaders. Likewise, dissenters from the English monarchy would seize provinces for themselves in the rage of the war, regardless of their right to do so, thereby robbing others of their rights.

 

In discussing the origin of the speaker’s struggle with sin, Donne draws from the subjects of another sonnet, Holy Sonnet IX: poisonous minerals, goats, and serpents. Donne’s biblical lesson will be the Fall of mankind from paradise due to disobeying God in the Garden of Eden. But first, the speaker must relate the secular manifestations (minerals and animals) to the depressing truth of Adam and Eve’s rebellion. The speaker opens the sonnet with “If poisonous minerals, and if that tree/ Whose fruit threw death on else immortal us, /If lecherous goats, if serpents envious/ Cannot be damned, alas, why should I be?” (lines 1-4). The conjunction “and” in the first line links the “poisonous minerals” to “that tree,” namely, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The tree is poisonous for Adam and Eve in a physical and spiritual sense; because they eat from the tree, they bring sin and death into the world. Therefore, mankind is doomed from their disobedience. And the speaker describes sin itself by linking the animals with the negative adjectives “lecherous,” and “envious.” The goats, indulging in sexual immortality, and used as metaphor by Christ Himself for unbelievers, will suffer God’s wrath. The serpents, desiring what others have, stand for the Devil, as the even book of Genesis indicates.

 

Such a depressing spiritual reality makes the speaker question God’s rationale in judging him: “alas, why should I be?” By using Reason, Donne draws on the dominant secular philosophy during his time period. Individuals asserted that, in spite of obeying the religious dogma of the English monarchy, one should obey one’s rationality instead. And in this way, one can pursue liberty even against God’s law that government was created by Him and for His people. But the speaker quickly abandons his interrogation of God with the phrase “But who am I that dare dispute with thee?” (line 9). In “The Rhetoric of Passion in Donne’s Holy Sonnets,” Tina Skouen explains that “the speaker is well aware, though he pretends otherwise, that animals cannot be blamed for their lack of self-control; humans, on the other hand, can because they can willfully succumb to their desires” (169). Because he has a responsibility for his spiritual state, the speaker cannot accuse God of being unfair in possibly damning him. John Donne, personally, for that matter, cannot reject God’s truth simply because he does not understand it. He accepts the inevitability of his sin and the consequences that will arise because of it.

 

What will Donne do now that he must accept death as the recompense of his iniquity? His response is to sing “A Hymn to God my God, in my Sickness.” The speaker parallels the most hopeful and significant lesson in the Christian faith with the art of cartography, an important trade in Donne’s era that assisted people in traveling unchartered seas to expand the English empire. He does this at a moment when he suffers an acute disease that threatens his life. The speaker says that “I joy, that in these straits, I see my West; / For, though their current yield return to none, / What shall my West hurt me? As West and East/ In all flat maps (and I am one) are one, / So death doth touch the resurrection” (lines 11-15). The speaker compares the aspects of an explorer’s map, fashioned by curious, finite man, to not only his own body but also to the Christian teaching of the Resurrection on the Last Day. In the Bible, Christ promises the believer that, even after physical death, there is a regeneration that will occur, engendering new life for eternity. Though the Christian may experience death as a punishment from the Fall, they will later rise from the dead in a new glorified body to enjoy Heaven forever. As a result, the speaker has great hope in the midst of the despair and wrath his sin brings upon him. The paradox of birth and rebirth is rampant in Donne’s poetry overall, according to John E. Parish: “the central lesson of Christianity is the paradoxical relationship between life and death” (300). Though Parish is speaking mainly about Holy Sonnet XIV, this same logic can be applied to most of Donne’s poetry.

 

In light of Donne’s techniques of using secular aspects of life to highlight the even more important spiritual ones, what can we conclude about his thinking about life in general? We can see that he believed that the relationship between the finite and infinite was important, not to be questioned. Such a belief connects rationale with abstract thinking. He seems to be asking the question as to whether or not 1600’s England was slowly submitting its traditional insistence on Christianity to more down-to-earth solutions to difficult problems. The complex relationship between these two beliefs highlights the world Donne lived in, at the very least, causing turmoil in the political arena. Yet, for Donne, the solace he finds in Christ is the ultimate conclusion: he would have the reader look deeper than the positive and negative concretes they experience every day and discover deeper truths about the universe. The Gospel, specifically, Christ’s redemption of sinners from God’s wrath, is the final conclusion to his life. He simply uses poetry that draws from tangible, everyday experience to express this exceedingly hopeful answer.

 

WORKS CITED

Parish, John E. “No. 14 of Donne’s Holy Sonnets.” College English 24.4 (1963): 299–302. Web. 21 Apr. 2014.

Skouen, Tina. “The Rhetoric of Passion in Donne’s Holy Sonnets.” Rhetorica: A Journal of the History of Rhetoric 27.2 (2009): 159–188. Web. 21 Apr. 2014.

Yearwood, Stephenie. “Donne’s Holy Sonnets: The Theology of Conversion.” Texas Studies in Literature and Language 24.2 (1982): 208–221. Print.

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!

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.

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.

Thoughts on T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land”

There are times in history in which humanity struggles to retain a positive outlook on life. By the time World War I ends, the optimism that the Enlightenment engendered gives way to serious doubt as to the progress of humans. The world lingers in shock as to the brutality of the war and remains in disillusionment as to its consequences.  In T.S. Eliot’s famous twentieth century poem, “The Waste Land,” the listener experiences different voices portraying the bleakness of post-World War I society.  Throughout the poem, Eliot connects many different scenes, myths, and religious views together to work his theme of demoralization. By establishing a dark tone in the work, Eliot presents the state of society in all of its despair and uncertainty.

When the war comes to an end in Europe, numerous towns and cities lie in ruins due to all the battles raged there. In the poem’s first section entitled “The Burial of the Dead,” the speaker asks “What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow/ Out of this stony rubbish?” (lines 19-20). The “roots” being spoken of are personified; the word “clutch” signifies a hand grasping onto something, possibly in desperation, as if there is an important message needing to be displayed, something eminent. “Rubbish” connotates a mess scattered all over the ground as a result of the bombs that the warring powers dropped onto the cities. All that the listener can view in the lines consists of a ruinous heap.  The rubbish in question lies on the ground, ancient, for it is described as “stony.” Whatever old values that society held onto falter in the face of this new devastation.  Europeans will not be able to recover the glorious past and ideals that they have lost to death and decay. What do people make of the chaos that surrounds them? The speaker says “You cannot say, or guess, for you know only/ A heap of broken images” (lines 21-22).  The ones who suffer in the aftermath of the war cannot understand the despair and destruction around them; they are so confounded by it that to even guess as to why it’s happened will not work. Instead of having a clear “image” as to what life means, the listener can only make out a “heap of broken images”, images that aren’t uniform but disjointed. Essentially, for the speaker, meaninglessness rules the atmosphere. The world in post War World I not only lies in physical ruins but philosophical ones as well.

Everyday Europeans, particularly Londoners, drudge along throughout the day in the after math of the Great War.  The speaker describes a typical afternoon in London: “A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many/ I had not thought death had undone so many/ Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled/ With a dead sound on the final stroke of nine” (lines 62-64 and 68). As people go through their daily routines, life seems to have lost its flavor. The demoralization lingers on “many” and not just a select few. The effects of the war affect numerous people on a global scale. The terror that weighs them down consists of the fact that war leaves emotional scars; families will now endure the loss of their loved ones who have died in combat. The “death that undoes so many” refers to the casualties of the war; they rip apart a person’s sense of peace and stability, even their moral footing.  Londoners “sigh, short and infrequent” because they sense the pain that lies within them.  Line 68 speaks of a “dead” sound, signifying that death not only occurred in the war on a massive scale but that a sense of death also lingers in the world, bringing people down in despair. How can the world be based upon a sense of optimism if death exposes itself everywhere you turn?  In commenting on London society in general, T.S. Eliot thought about the continuity of the human predicament: modern man in the city with its despairing noises; the mind of one the continuation of the other, the problem unchanging (qtd. in Martin 20). The “dead sound” in line 68 points to this reference. The “continuation of the mind” shows that modern man struggles with a universal sense of destruction, one that ceases to change and which is relevant to each age.  In this sense, humanity continues to ponder the meaning of death and why it occurs.

Specifically, people suffer under gloom and depression in the institution of marriage. A lack of communication between husband and wife leads to a general feeling of confusion and boredom.  In the poem’s second section, “A Game of Chess,” a husband and wife are having difficulty communicating with one another: “’What are you thinking of? What thinking? What/ I never know what you are thinking. Think’/ I think we are in a rats’ alley/ Where the dead men lost their bones” (lines 113-116).  The wife, curious as to what her husband thinks about, asks him directly, exasperated; apparently, she never receives a sufficient response form him regarding his true inner feelings. The husband never answers her pleas for clarity. Not only does a blurred outlook on life dominate society as a whole but it also reigns in the individual lives of citizens.  In this case, the woman can never be sure what her partner is thinking about. She assumes that he thinks of nothing at all. Yet the husband seems to respond through lines 115-116. Yet curiously, the husband’s reply isn’t enclosed in quotation marks; this most likely means he, in reality, does not answer at all and only meditates his thoughts (qtd. in Cuddy 128). He tries to make sense out of the things that are happening around him. But because of the despair he feels, he refuses to let his wife know, probably out of fear of frightening her. Therefore, he chooses to remain silent; the truth hurts enough.  The consequence lies in the fact that, because he will not communicate to her, their marriage no longer contains a mutual foundation. Without the ability to let one another know how they feel about certain issues, they cannot support one another during a time of great doubt and perplexity.

In regards to the male/female relationship, the speaker relates to a scene of illicit sexuality, which occurs in the third section of the poem entitled “The Fire Sermon.” A man makes his move on a vulnerable mistress: “Flushed and undecided, he assaults at once/ Exploring hands encounter no defense/ His vanity requires no response/ And makes a welcome of indifference” (lines 239-242). The woman lacks the moral strength necessary to reject the man’s advances, and even if she did, she would not win the battle.  The male “assaults” her, violently trespassing his boundaries. His actions, being as nonconsensual as they are, break through so easily since the lady no longer believes in standing up for herself. Not even the man is sure as to what to think of his actions. “Vanity” connotates a sense that nothing is of any value anymore, that nothing can have lasting substance in an era of pure degradation. Nobody wonders as to why the sexual advance should be seen as an issue.  “Indifference” captures the tone of society as well as the individual. Whether or not people should respect or love one another no longer pertains to the world. Because the war drove people down into the ground through despair, humans have lost the will to be rational, moral beings. They no longer have a standard of right and wrong by which to judge their actions.

The center for knowing right from wrong in the traditional sense, the church, also suffers under the demise caused from World War I.  Religion, powerless, cannot give man a sense of hope. In the poem’s final section, “What the Thunder Said,” presents the listener with the vision of a chapel: “Over the tumbled graves, about the chapel/ There is the empty chapel, only the wind’s home/ It has no windows, and the door swings/ Dry bones can harm no one” (lines 388-391).  The “tumbled graves” indicate the deaths of the soldiers who have passed away in the fury of the war. They also point to the deaths of regular people in society. Since the chapel surrounds the symbols of death (the graves), the speaker shows the auditor how religion has played a role in explaining how to best endure death: faith. Having a deep conviction in an afterlife allows on to face death. Yet faith, being based on what a person does not see, is less effective than the demise that presents itself up close to humanity.  The chapel is described as “empty”, symbolizing the fact that people have abandoned faith in God during the aftermath of the war; no longer does a community of humans gather under the banner of religion in order to understand the world. The despair in Europe oppresses any sense of religious hope.  The bones from the chapel can “harm no one” in that religion has lost its power to have an important base in the human mind.

From the beginnings of the Enlightenment, humans believed that reason would give humanity a framework in which to base all their actions in regard to the world and themselves. In the era of Romanticism and Transcendentalism, people began to find the meaning of life within themselves and in Nature (or all the experiences of life).  By becoming self-sufficient and reasonable, they could solve the world’s issues and establish permanent peace on Earth. However, once World War came, death occurred on such a large scale that the world now began to realize just how base humanity can be in its treatment of others. The world apparently is not ready for harmony and cooperation. The despair in the world prevails to the point where individuals are bewildered as to what it even means. There is no way to make anything out of it.  T.S. Eliot’s conclusion to the modern dilemma presents itself in the final line of the poem: the word “Shantih” is repeated three times. According to Eliot, the word is translated as the “Peace which passes all understanding.” The only solution to the bleak and confusing mood of post-World War I society consists of a peace of mind that cannot be grasped by the world. Yet it is just as real as death and has its own way of inspiring hope even in the darkest of circumstances.

Works Cited

Cuddy, A. Lois and Hirsch, H. David eds. Critical Essays on T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land.  G.K. Hall & Co. Boston, Massachusetts, 1991. Print.

Eliot, T.S. “The Waste Land.” The Norton Introduction of American Literature. Eds. Nina Bym Shorter Seventh ed. New York, London: W.W. Norton and Company, 2008. 869-881 Print.

Herbert, Howarth. “Notes on Some Figures Behind T.S. Eliot.” Martin. 20. Print.

Jr, Grover Smith. “Memory and Desire: The Waste Land.” Cuddy and Hirsch. 128. Print.

Martin, Jay eds. A Collection of Critical Essays on “The Waste Land.”  Prentice Hall, Inc. Englewood Cliffs, N.J. 1968. Print.