Monday, October 31, 2011

That's it, I'm outta here...

Woo Hoo! I passed! I can hardly believe it. I don't think the full reality of the fact that I have actually passed the UTSA M.A. Comprehensive Exam for English has hit me yet, but I know it will, and when it does, it will be glorious. I even took the exam a full semester early to prepare for the possibility that I didn't pass it and had to take it again in the Spring. But now, that will not be necessary and I can just enjoy my last semester and prepare for graduation.

Now that I have experienced the full stress and horror of the exam from beginning to end, I thought I would give my top ten tips for anyone out there who has to take this thing. This is stuff that worked well for me, so you can take it or leave it.

10. For the semester in which you choose to take the exam, treat it as if it is another 3 credit hour course. This will put it in perspective as far as the amount of time that will be necessary to devote to it.

9. Start reading early and take notes as you go. I started this blog last June and still almost ran out of time at the end and had to rush things. Make no mistake, there is a massive amount of stuff to read on that list.

8. READ EVERYTHING. Most of the professors know what it is in the movie versions.

7. Check different sources and editions. Don't go to Wikipedia thinking it is a one-stop shop of information. I feel like that should go without saying, but I know the temptation is there. I mean, it is Wikipedia...but believe it or not, people try it. And only reading plot summaries from any source as a substitute for the work is just a bad idea. Refer to tip #8 for more clarification.

6. Join or form a study group if you can. I actually wasn't able to do this, but it would have been nice. There is something about meeting regularly to discuss and study with others who are currently going through the exact same thing you are.

5. Meet at least once with all three of your committee members, not just your chair. I found this to be extremely helpful to me. There is no guarantee you'll have professors on your committee that you already know (in fact, I hadn't ever had a class with any of my committee members). And it was nice to not have my oral exam be the first time I was meeting them. It allows for it to be much more like a conversation than a test.

4. For the four-hour written part, do not eat anything heavy beforehand, but do eat something, or take a light snack. But for the love of all that is good please no noisy chip bags. There will be other people in the writing lab with you desperately trying to concentrate. And I love Cheetos as much as the next person but really, the cheese dust will only hinder your ability to type anyway.

3. Also for the written, try to make sure to leave yourself some time at the end to go back over what you wrote. I didn't do that and basically finished up my explication of the poem and had to hit print without a chance to correct any mistakes beyond the usual spellcheck.

2. In the oral, take the opportunity to correct or expand upon anything you may have discussed in the written part of the exam. I went ahead and corrected myself on one thing I didn't define correctly and it totally helped.

1. And my number one tip for the exam: accept right now the fact that you will read many things on your personal list that you will not be asked about or get to discuss on either the oral or written part of the exam. And this counts for both required and recommended texts. My oral exam went over a good deal of what I wrote, so there were very few works that we discussed that I hadn't already written about. So there are quite a few monsters I read and studied in detail that never came up. Most notable are Paradise Lost, Tom Jones, Middlemarch, Bleak House, Invisible Man, and the poetry of John Donne, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, and William Wordsworth. No. Joke. I am not complaining in the slightest bit...I probably couldn't talk much about Wordsworth if I tried, but still, kind of surprising.

And there you have it. I hope this, and all of my other posts, were nothing if not helpful to anyone taking the M.A. Exam in English. It definitely helped me.

So what will I do with this blog now? Actually, I am going to keep it as a book blog, but from now on I will just do book reviews of newer fiction, but still also visit the classic monsters that I tend to be drawn too, a lot of which have been sitting on my shelf for years now because I had to read for this exam (Don Quixote I am looking in your direction). I don't know when I will actually be able to start this since of course now that I am done with the test I have to focus on writing a paper for the class I am taking. But either way, that is my we'll see how it goes.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Sample Questions

Thanks to my committee members and the graduate office of the English department, I am able to post some sample questions. Of course, these are not the actual questions that will show up on the exam. These are either similar to questions that have shown up on previous exams, or questions I was asked by members of my committee before my exam. I think they are incredibly helpful in thinking about how to answer questions for the test using both required and optional texts on the list.



Look at William Wordsworth's "Preface to Lyrical Ballads" and discuss the differences (if any) between his beliefs on what the poet should be and what T.S. Eliot believes from "Tradition and the Individual Talent."


Starting with George Washington Gomez by Americo Paredes and it's sub-heading as a "Mexicotexan Novel," discuss the issue of works falling under more than one genre heading. Use two other works from the list, at least one of which must be pre-1850.


In any two works discuss the issue of the unreliable narrator.


1. Using Troilus and Criseyde, Dr. Faustus, Samson Agonistes, and Frankenstein, discuss if the main female figure in the work is loyal or not. Why, why not, and to whom?

2. Using The Sound and the Fury, "The Artificial Nigger", and Breath, Eyes, Memory, discuss the mother figure in each work and how they have or have not abandoned their family.

What became clear to me when attempting to answer these questions is how important it is to know the timeline and where each work falls in history. You’ll have to be able to know works that come before the year 1850, works that fall in the post-modern era as opposed to modern, and also things like whether a work came before or after the invention of the printing press. Yes, this is a lot of stuff to just “know.” And yes, I am scared too.

With that being said, this will most likely be my last post before the actual exam. The written for the Fall 2011 semester is scheduled for Monday, October 24th from 12:00-4:00pm. And my oral is scheduled for Thursday, October 27th at 3:15. I hope for the best for everyone out there.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Important Terms and Definitions

Below are what I have come up with so far of important terms and definitions that are extremely useful to know for the M.A. exam. The majority of the definitions I took from the Oxford English Dictionary. For extended information of other terms and phrases, especially the time periods, I actually turned to Wikipedia. With that being said, it is definitely worth looking up these words in more than one place, not only to gain as much understanding as possible, but also to check definitions against each other.

Adventure – An unusual and exciting, typically hazardous, experience or activity. A daring and exciting activity calling for enterprise and enthusiasm.

Autobiography – An account of a person’s life written by that person.

Bildungsroman – A novel dealing with one person’s formative years or spiritual education.

Chivalry (chivalric) – The medieval knight system with its religious, moral, and social code. The combination of qualities expected of an ideal knight, especially courage, honor, courtesy, justice, and a readiness to help the weak. Courteous behavior, especially that of a man toward a woman.

Comedy – A play characterized by its humorous or satirical tone and its depiction of amusing people or incidents, in which the characters ultimately triumph over adversity. According to Aristotle, comedy is a dramatic imitation of men worse than average that had a favorable ending.

Doppelganger – An apparition or double of a living person.

Drama – A play for theater, radio, or television.

Early Modern Era – Follows the late Middle Ages. Spans the period after the later Middle Ages through the beginning of the Age of Revolutions.

Epic – A long poem, typically one derived from ancient oral tradition, narrating the deeds and adventures of heroic or legendary figures or the history of a nation.

Essay – a short piece of writing on a particular subject.

Fiction – Literature in the form of prose, especially short stories and novels that describes imaginary events and people.

Fugitive Slave Act – Fugitive slave acts that were passed in the U.S. in 1793 and 1850 to provide for the return of slaves who escaped from one state into another. The law mandated that government officials must help with the capturing and returning of slaves that mostly escaped to the free states of the north from the slave states of the south. This was enacted in order to protect the property of slave owners.

Genre – A category of artistic composition, as in music or literature, characterized by similarities in form, style, or subject matter. I try to keep this and theme separated in my mind by remembering that a genre is a noun, while a theme is usually an adjective.

Gothic – A genre or mode of literature that combines elements of both horror and romance.

Heroic Couplet – A traditional form of English poetry, commonly used for epic and narrative poetry; it refers to poems constructed from a sequence of rhyming pairs of iambic pentameter lines. The rhyme is always masculine. Use of the heroic couplet was first pioneered by Geoffrey Chaucer.

History – 1. The study of past events, particularly in human affairs; 2. The whole series of past events connected with someone or something; 3. A continuous, typically chronological, record of important or public events or of a particular trend or institution.

Horror – A thing causing a feeling of fear, shock, or disgust. A literary of film genre concerned with arousing feelings of horror.

Humanism – An approach that focuses on human values and concerns. Affirms the notion of human nature.

Iambic Pentameter – A commonly used metrical line in traditional verse and verse drama. The term describes the particular rhythm that the words establish in that line.

Medieval – of or relating to the Middle Ages.

Middle Ages – A period of European history from the 5th century to the 15th century. The Middle Ages follows the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476 and precedes the Early Modern Era.

Mode – An employed method or approach, identifiable within a written work. Often used incorrectly when speaking of genre (guilty as charged).

Modernism – A style or movement in the arts that aims to break with classical and traditional forms. A movement toward modifying traditional beliefs in accordance with modern ideas, especially in the Roman Catholic Church in the lat 19th and early 20th centuries. A revolt against the conservative values of realism. Rejects tradition and reprises, incorporates, rewrites, revises, and parodies in new forms. Rejection of the all-powerful Creator God in favor of the abstract, unconventional, largely uncertain ethic brought on by modernity.

Narrative – A spoken or written account of connected events; a story.

Novel - A fictitious prose narrative of book length, typically representing character and action with some degree of realism.

Panoramic – With a wide view surrounding the observer; including all aspects of a subject.

Petrarchan Sonnet – A verse form that typically refers to a concept of unattainable love. It was first developed by Francesco Petrarca. They depict the addressed lady in hyperbolic terms and present her as a model of perfection and inspiration.

Picaresque - a popular sub-genre of prose fiction which is usually satirical and depicts, in realistic and often humorous detail, the adventures of a roguish hero of low social class who lives by his wits in a corrupt society.

Play – A dramatic work for the stage or to be broadcast.

Poetry – Literary work in which special intensity is given to the expression of feelings and ideas by the use of distinctive style and rhythm; poems collectively or as a genre of literature.

Post-Modernism – A late 20th century style and concept in the arts, architecture, and criticism that represents a departure from modernism and has at its heart a general distrust of grand theories and ideologies as well as a problematic relationship with any notion of “art.”

Prose – Written or spoken language in its ordinary form, without metrical structure.

Realism – The doctrine that universals or abstract concepts have an objective or absolute existence.

Restoration – English literature written during the historical period between 1660-1689 which was roughly homogenous and centered on the celebration or reaction to the restored court of Charles II.

Romance – A style of heroic prose and verse narrative that was popular in the aristocratic circles of High Medieval and Early Modern Europe. Fantastic stories about marvel-filled adventures, often of a knight errant portrayed as having heroic qualities, who goes on a quest.

Satire – The use of humor, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose and criticize people’s stupidity or vices, particularly in the context of contemporary politics and other topical issues.

Science Fiction – A genre of fiction dealing with imaginary but more or less plausible (or at least non-supernatural) content such as future settings, futuristic science and technology, space travel, aliens, and paranormal abilities.

Slave Narrative – A literary form which grew out of the written accounts of enslaved Africans in Britain and its colonies, including the US, Canada, and Caribbean nations.

Sonnet – A poem of 14 lines using any of a number of formal rhyme schemes, in English, typically having ten syllables per line.

Southern Gothic – A subgenre of Gothic fiction unique to American literature that takes place exclusively in the American South. It resembles its parent genre in that it relies on supernatural, ironic, or unusual events to guide the plot. Also uses these tools to explore social issues and reveal the cultural character of the American South. The Southern Gothic style employs the use of macabre, ironic events to examine the American South.

Speech – A forma address or discourse delivered to an audience.

Spenserian Sonnet – A variant of the sonnet, named after Edmund Spenser, in which the rhyme scheme is abab, bcbc, cdcd, ee.

Theme – An idea that recurs in or pervades a work of art of literature.

Tragedy – A play dealing with tragic events and having an unhappy ending, especially one concerning the downfall of the main character. Aristotle states it is a work that imitates men better than average and ends unfavorably.

Tragicomedy – A play or novel containing elements of both comedy and tragedy.

Transcendentalism – A protest against the general state of culture and society, and in particular, the state of intellectualism and the doctrine of the Unitarian church. The core beliefs include an ideal spirituality that transcends the physical and empirical and is realized only through the individual’s intuition, rather than through the doctrines of established religions.

Treatise – A written work dealing formally and systematically with a subject.

Utopian Fiction – Genre of literature that explores social and political structures. Involves the creation of the ideal world, or utopia, as the setting for the work. Dystopian would be the opposite.

Verse – Writing arranged with a metrical rhythm, typically having a rhyme.

Friday, October 14, 2011


I decided to make a timeline using a wonderful website that was revealed to me a few years ago when a fellow classmate used it in a presentation. has been a fantastic way for me to plot down every item on my list in a line so that I can see from a glance where they all fall in history in relation to each other. I read everything out of order, so I needed to be able to start from the beginning and know in what order these works came into being.

It has also been suggested to me by one of my committee chairs that flashcards - that's right, flashcards - may be helpful in keeping the timeline straight. Each time period gets its own color, and each card contains pertinent information that not only includes the title, author, and year, but also of course the genre, main themes, and maybe an important point in history if that would be helpful to you. I honestly thought I had kissed flashcards goodbye once I passed College Algebra, and yet, here I am.

You can access the timeline I created here. Of course, any timeline you create is going to include your own optional works, but feel free to use mine in whatever way would be useful to you.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Required Poet: Cherrie Moraga

Woo Hoo! This is it! I can’t believe I actually kept up with this thing through my whole list. This is my last post on any of the actual works, but not my last post before the test. I will still go over the timeline, a list of terms, and then I’ll attempt to bring the two together and distinguish between time periods using fancy words. Exciting!


Once again, we got Chicana, we got feminist activists, we got politics, and much like Anzaldua, we have queer theory. And again, I went for the label of poet when Moraga was also an essayist and a playwright. In fact, for the list, there are more essays of Moraga’s then anything else, but I decided to stick with the poetry label, if only for continuity’s sake.

Queer Aztlan: the Re-formation of Chicano Tribe

This section from Moraga’s book, The Last Generation, has similarities with Anzaldua’s Borderlands/La Frontera. Moraga confronts the issue of being from two different worlds (her father was white, her mother was a Latina), the issue of the Native Americans and how their land was taken from them, the issues of border patrol on the US/Mexico border, and she also deals with the marginalization of gays and lesbians and how their insight would be valuable to ignite change. Also, much like Anzaldua, Moraga points out that even within the Chicano culture there can be extreme sexism, racism, and exclusion. Like Anzaldua, Moraga is calling for a new or reformation of the Chicano culture to rise up and ignite change.

Loving in the War Years

This poem to me is actually pretty literal as well as metaphorical. There is a sense of a war of some sort going on around the two characters in this poem. What type of war is never quite clear, but I would assume it is the same type of war Moraga talks about in “Queer Aztlan.” But there is also a sort of competition between the two characters in the poem, despite the fact that they seem to care a great deal for each other. They can’t quite seem to explain or express their love for each other, but instead they play games and “size each other up.” By the end the speaker realizes it is because this war has hurt them before; however; they should accept each other as they are.

La Guera

Moraga once again confronts her experience as a biracial woman who looks more white than Latina. Growing up, this was seen as a blessing and known as “la guera.” Moraga points out that only the oppressed are fighting for their own liberation because the ones that aren’t oppressed or at all affected don’t see a reason to. Their ignorance keeps them blind and happy, and she states that she experiences this same ignorance growing up because she took advantage of “la guera.” When she realized this, she felt ashamed and felt that she had abandoned her people and also her mother tongue by not speaking Spanish. She also once again confronts the issues of exclusion between the races among feminists and the exclusion of gays and lesbians within any movement.

A Long Line of Vendidas

This is a very short little paragraph (I don’t think I can all it a poem) that Moraga actually dedicated to Anzaldua. She speaks of the night she had a fight with her lover that sent them both to separate beds where she dreamed of “church and cunt.” It was a mix of the Catholic Church fused with the sensation of having sex with a woman. The speaker explains that it is an issue and a journey she must work out for herself.

Looking for the Insatiable Woman

In this essay Moraga talks about her experience in attempting to write her own story of La Llorona, or The Mexican Weeping Woman. La Llorona, after being sexually betrayed by her man, drowns her children in either a fit of jealousy, rage, or even just pure retaliation. As punishment for her crime, she is not allowed to enter heaven but is instead subject to forever search for her undead children only to never find them. Moraga describes the effect this traditional Mexican story has had on her, even though she was never told it growing up. When she finally did hear the story of La Llorona, she immediately recognized her as a fellow sister, and that led her to investigate further. She eventually starts looking at other stories of “insatiable women” across cultures and bringing the threads together and linking them. At the time Moraga wrote this essay, she still had not completed her La Llorona story and wonders if she ever will. What she wants to write is something real and not in translation; something not just for entertainment.

Out of our Revolutionary Minds Toward a Pedagogy of Revolt

For this one, it is a miracle that I was able to get my hands on a copy of the book this came from to read this essay. All of the other required stuff that came from Moraga's Loving in the War Years, 2nd edition I was able to find online or in the library. But apparently this particular essay is only available in the second edition, and while "Looking for the Insatiable Woman" is too, I was at least able to print that one off the internet. Only after browsing through the books of a recently deceased but dearly professor whose books in her office have been left to graduate students did I finally find this gem. The last book I needed was found through the death of the instructor that originally was supposed to hold my hand through this process in the first place. Awesome.

And now that I have finally read this essay, I am glad I did. Moraga pretty much laments the state of academia in the sense of how it has treated minority scholars and the literature and history of their own cultures. However, she does not put total blame on the ones who are in charge. As her title suggests, those who wish to be part of the revolution against the dominant Euro-American world view have failed to protest fully and effectively. Moraga feels that many colored students went off to college because, 1. many are the first in their families to do so and minority parents want more than anything for their children to take advantage of that which they could not. But also, 2. Moraga believes many of these young colored students feel that going to college is a way to participate in the revolution. But the thing is, once the student gets to college, they are taught their literature and their history and their culture, and very little about their own - so what was the point? Therefore, these students must move past "revolution," which hasn't gotten them very far, and more towards out and out revolt: complete rejection of or refusal to acknowledge any authority one entity may have over another. I have to say that, while I don't agree with everything Moraga says, I do like this essay very much.


As I mentioned in the history section of the post on Anzaldua, Moraga co-edited This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color with Anzaldua. And while Moraga also focuses on gays and lesbians, she seems to put even more emphasis on the value of their insight, and also their general value. Moraga believes they have a special insight because of their ability to love their own gender.

And there you have it. I am done. I know this process has been immensely helpful to me, and I hope it also has been helpful to whoever is actually reading this thing. There are some serious monsters on this list, and I have now faced all of them. I’m still scared of a few, but you know, one step at a time.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Required Poet: Gloria Anzaldua

Yea! I came through on my promise. Like Lorna Dee Cervantes, I had heard of Gloria Anzaldua but I hadn’t read any of her work. And while I put her under the category of “poet,” her work that we are required to read for the M.A. exam is the first seven chapters of Borderlands/La Frontera. These chapters do include some poetry interspersed throughout the rhetoric, but the majority of the poetry is located in the second half of the book. Also, pictured at the right is the third edition, and the introduction they want us to read is from the second edition. However, the third edition does include the second edition’s introduction, so it all works out.


There is going to be a lot of overlap here with Cervantes. She was a leading scholar in Chicano cultural theory and often also focused on gender and political issues. At the same time, Anzaldua was also at the forefront of Queer theory – queer readings of text and the theorization of queerness itself.

Borderlands/La Frontera focuses primarily on Anzaldua’s life growing up on the Texas/Mexico border and the life-long feelings of social and cultural marginalization that comes with that background.


I suppose I will go ahead and start with the code-switching. If you know Spanish, that will help you a great deal with this book. While the book is predominantly in English, Anzaldua switches to Spanish often; sometimes it happens mid-chapter, other times mid-paragraph, and even mid-sentence. I believe Anzaldua is expressing the duality of her background. However, at one point, she does explain in detail the language that Chicanos speak because of their need to identify themselves as a distinct people, which is in itself a mixture of eight different languages. Two of the languages are English and a variation of English, while the other six are variations of Spanish. Of course, number seven, which is called Tex-Mex, does include English as well. Out of all of these comes the language that Anzaldua is writing in.

Anzaldua also explores the issue of gender and how even within the Chicano culture, women are degraded and looked down upon and seen as lesser people. Anzaldua explores how the dominant male culture sees womanhood as something to almost be afraid of and subdue. In exploring this massively complicated issue, Anzaldua makes what I think is a bold statement when she says she chooses to be a lesbian and love other women. That of course leads into Anzaldua exploring the role of gay men and women in helping this country get past each other’s differences. Again, even within her own Chicano culture, the queer are marginalized and ignored and discriminated against.

Anzaldua expresses a desire for people to no longer allow race to divide them, but instead have everyone confront their own fears and move forward into a society that is helpful instead of hateful. Anzaldua introduced the term mestizaje into the academic world. The “new mestiza” would move past the dominant binary way of thinking about both race and sexuality and be a mix of all cultures and people. I am sure I have completely oversimplified pretty much everything Anzaldua was attempting to explain, but there is a great deal of information here and that was the best way I could find to put it simply in a blog post.

All of these themes express a tension over some kind of border between different types of people. Ultimately, Anzaldua is writing about being proud of every aspect of who you are.


I have probably covered a great deal of what would normally go in this section. In 1981 she co-edited This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color with Cherrie Moraga, which is the next and last writer I will cover for this blog. She often weaves English and Spanish into one language in her work. Interestingly enough, the frustration and annoyance the average reader would feel with this is the exact same frustration and annoyance Anzaldua has felt for most of her life. In 2004, Anzaldua died from complications due to diabetes.

I can’t believe it, but the next post will be my last one that is exclusively about an item on the list, and I lived to tell about it.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Required Poet: Lorna Dee Cervantes

Okay, I know last time I said I would start these last three posts off with Gloria Anzaldua, but clearly, as you can probably tell by the title of this blog, I lied. I just didn’t get through all seven of the required chapters of Borderlands/La Frontera in time. Therefore, I am covering the much shorter assignment of the five poems required from Lorna Dee Cervantes. It is easy reading and great stuff. I’m glad I read it.


Cervantes’ writing qualifies as a Chicana-Native American, feminists, and political. All of the above descriptions definitely come through in all five of the required poems. At least one of the issues of race, gender, and politics comes through in some way in each of them.

Uncle’s First Rabbit

I know I have said this at least once for the past two posts, but I have to say it again…this one makes me sad. It starts out so well with “He was a good boy,” but I guess the operative word in the first line is “was.” The poem begins with an innocent boy out to hunt his first rabbit for his grandpa, and then it appears that all hell break’s loose. It fast-forwards 50 years where the main character is remembering the cry of the rabbit and mixing it with the cry of his now deceased little sister. He remembers the abuse of his father on his mother, and then running off to fight in a war, only to end up, 50 years later, also abusing his wife just like the father he now hates did. Mostly he remembers running away from everything, and at the end, he wants to run away again from the wife he constantly abuses. I see it as a commentary and how something like abuse can be generational, even if the one who continues the tradition knows how awful it is. And what makes this really sad is that the poem is titled “Uncle’s First Rabbit,” meaning this could have been someone Cervantes knew, someone in her own family.

Cannery Town in August

This poem illustrates the working women who spent their days in the cannery. The poem describes their “spinach speckled shoes,” and how the women “smell of whiskey and tomatoes,” and of “peach fuzz reddening their lips and eyes,” almost as if their work just permeates their entire being and then goes home with them. I especially enjoy the description of the night bird as it “sing[s] the swing shift home.” And as they leave, they don’t even speak, but just walk almost like mindless zombies, just numb from the long day of work.

Beneath the Shadow of the Freeway

This one reminded me of “Uncle’s First Rabbit” in that it seems to reiterate the idea of generational habits and abuse. The grandmother builds a house after leaving a man that had tried to kill her, despite having been with him for 25 years. And then the granddaughter, who I assume is the speaker, also grows up and ends up in an abusive relationship. Also, just like her grandmother, she starts to plant geraniums, tie her hair up in loose braids, and only trust what she built with her own hands. And to only trust what she has built with her own hands means to not trust that freeway in the front of their house – the one the speaker describes as a “blind worm, wrapping the valley up from Los Altos to Sal Si Puedes.” I especially enjoyed the speaker giving everyone kind of a superhero alter-ego and making her grandmother the Queen, her mother the “Swift Knight, Fearless Warrior,” and herself the “Scribe: Translator of Foreign Mail.” Seriously, who didn’t do this as a kid…to this day I have at least five good superhero names waiting to be used. Heck, I am writing this blog under one of them…

For Virginia Chavez

This is a sort of ode to a great friend, I am guessing. There are some wonderful memories here of going out with boys, and then outsmarting said boys, stealing sips of alcohol from mom’s stash, of reading poetry together, of being pregnant together, and then the less than happy times of men leaving and taking the kids with them. The poem seems to span an entire lifetime of adventures with a great friend, and then it ends as if to say those adventures aren’t over. It is almost as if they have found each other again after a long absence and intend on making up for lost time. I could be wrong about that last part, but that is just how I feel about it.

Poem for the Young White Man Who Asked Me How I, an Intelligent, Well-Read Person Could Believe in the War Between Races

Just have to start by saying that I love the title of this one. It starts out with what I am sure people have said to Cervantes, and even a few things Cervantes herself has probably wished she could say, but to do so would be to ignore the very obvious fact racism and prejudice is real, as the speaker knows by the way people look at her and by the events that happen all around her. The speaker states quite plainly that she believes in a revolution, and the last lines states “I do not believe in the war between races/but in this country/there is war.” For the speaker, there is just too much evidence to believe otherwise. Cervantes wants to “dance on rooftops, /to whisper delicate lines about joy/ and the blessings of human understanding” (now that would be nice), but alas, it just isn’t that way. This poem also makes me sad.


Really just one little tidbit I wish to share: growing up Cervantes was forced to speak only English in the home because her parents wished to avoid the racism that was prevalent in her community at the time. Later in her life her brother got a job at a local library and that introduced her to a lot of her poetic influences such as Shakespeare, Keats, Shelley, and Byron. The word “emplumada,” which is the title of the collection of poetry all of these poems appear in, is a combination of both “feathered” and “pen flourish.” Cervantes explores the issue of being “chicana” and being in-between two cultures.

Okay, next time, I will actually do Gloria Anzaldua, I promise…maybe.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Required Poet: Theodore Roethke

This guy ain’t bad. I had no prior knowledge of him or his work, but I enjoyed the five poems we had to read for the exam. I can see why he was placed with Sylvia Plath in the list as they are both considered Confessional poets (a genre I will go ahead and assign to his poetry in general), and they both also suffered from depression. As we will see, Roethke enjoyed making use of natural imagery, and his later work slowly moved more and more towards bigger themes such as man and God, the universe, and the like.

Root Cellar

I believe this poem is considered to be one of Roethke’s “greenhouse” poems. There is so much detail and natural imagery of this root cellar. Roethke managed to give a kind of unnatural life to things that don’t necessarily “sleep” or “breath.” The root cellar appears to be nothing special – in fact, I imagine it to be pretty disgusting – but Roethke manages to make even the dirt come to life by saying that even it “kept breathing a small breath.” And the leaf-mold, which is just “piled against slippery planks,” seems to take on a life of its own. I felt like I could not only see, but also feel and smell how dank and disgusting this root cellar is.

My Papa’s Waltz

This is one that makes me sad and a little bit scared…and I am probably getting that sense of fear from the child in the story who is dealing with his own fear. I could compare this one to Plath’s “Daddy” as it tells the story of a little boy being dragged away by his seemingly drunk father to be dealt with physically (not necessarily abused as the poem isn’t that specific) and then put to bed. The narrator, who seems to be the little boy, refers to this event as a “waltz.” Another word that is used is “romped,” while the pans slid from the shelves in the kitchen and mom watches on frowning. The poem is only four stanzas long with each having the rhyme scheme “abab.” Also, each line has the same rhythm, which gives the poem kind of a sing-song quality that goes with the waltzing theme.

The Waking

Yea! A happy poem…I think. Well, it makes me happy anyway. Probably another one of Roethke’s greenhouse poems as it describes a stroll across a field full of flowers and animals, through the woods, and to the river where the speaker’s ears find “an early joy.” Throughout the poem, heat is happy, blossoms sing, stones sing, daisies wave, and streams sing in the speaker’s veins. I can’t help but imagine some of my happiest moments that happened outside (and since I don’t much care for “fun in the sun,” they are pretty few and far between), and that feeling of being able to breath out there in a way that isn’t possible inside.

I Knew a Woman

This is the only one of Roethke’s love poems to make the list. Made up of only four stanzas the rhyme scheme of each is more or less ababccc, which I find interesting but I couldn’t tell you why. Because the speaker talks about what the woman in the poem “taught” him, I got the sense that this may have even been an older woman, but I could be wrong about that. There is a great deal of focus on the woman’s movements (“when she moved, she moved more ways than one;” “She moved in circles, and those circles moved”), and Roethke managed to include his usual nature imagery as well. And even though the title of the poem is “I Knew a Woman,” I get the sense that the woman isn’t dead, they just aren’t lovers anymore.

In a Dark Time

There is much talk of darkness and light in this poem and may be a picture of Roethke’s struggle with depression and with the bigger themes of God and eternity and the universe. I am reminded of Emily Dickinson’s “Much madness is divinest sense” because of the first line of the second stanza, “What’s madness but nobility of soul.” Maybe this isn’t so much a sad poem as it is a poem of Roethke confronting his depression and attempting to make the best of it. By the end, the speaker concludes that “A fallen man, I climb out of my fear. /The mind enters itself, and God the mind, /And one is One, free in the tearing wind.” That actually sounds fairly hopeful to me.

A Little More History

Much of Roethke’s childhood was spent in a large greenhouse owned by his dad and his uncle, which probably accounts for the nature imagery found in a good portion of his work. However, when Roethke was only 15, his uncle committed suicide and his father also died, all in the same year. In addition to his depression, he was also a heavy drinker (which I am sure didn’t help the depression), but despite both of these things, his wife stuck by him and even published a last volume of poetry after his death. Roethke died of a heart attack in his friend’s swimming pool at the age of 55.

So that was surprisingly painless. Next time, I will start the first of my last three posts on specific items on the list with Gloria Anzaldua before moving on to general posts regarding a timeline, term definitions, etc.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Required Poet: Sylvia Plath Part II

I have already done one post on Sylvia Plath (reference September 2010) in which I went through the poem “Daddy,” but I have left the other seven poems for explanation until now, about a year later. Why? No real reason. I was just avoiding the poetry all-together really and now that I have so few items to go through I must finally face them all. Like I said in the previous post, Plath is much easier for me to understand than some of the others, but even so, I would take the below paragraphs with a grain of salt.

For genre, these will pretty much all fall into the category of confessional poetry – a genre which often focuses on the person, and sometimes unflattering, personal details of the poet’s life. Plath is credited with advancing this genre and is known for using minute everyday details in a significant way in her poetry. For every poem I’ll just go over the themes and then do more history at the end. For even more information, consult the September 2010 post I did on “Daddy.”

The Colossus

This poem definitely deals with death, but I think it deals even more with redemption and resurrection. And this is a resurrection that the narrator truly works for. The poem goes through the process of constructed this, well, colossus of a statue. The poem states that what has happened so far has taken 30 years to do, and from the first line the narrator admits that she “shall never get [it] put together entirely,” therefore immediately admitting that the project/redemption will never be truly complete (which is kind of sad if you think about it). At one point she calls the structure “father,” and refers to it as a “ruin.” I think of despair, because it feels like there is so much effort here to only end up with something destined to be a ruin.

Morning Son

This is poem is a rare occasion in Plath’s later poetry in that it actually deals with the start of a life instead of the end of one. I am guessing this deals with the birth of Plath’s son, Nicholas, who, incredibly sad to say, followed in his mother’s footsteps and hung himself in 2009 after a history of depression. In the poem there is much mention of the infants “cry,” of “voices” echoing, of the baby’s “moth-breath,” of a “handful of notes,” “clear vowels” and several other examples of various sounds coming from a mouth and Plath listening. Plath couples these sounds with vivid images of nature.

The lines that strike me the most: “I’m no more your mother/Than the cloud that distills a mirror to reflect its own slow/Effacement at the wind’s hand.” Does that count as creating distance or as saying that all of nature is a part of nurturing this child? I honestly have no idea.


I always want to read this as a pleasant romp through blackberry bushes on the way to the seashore, but it is not…it is so not. The blackberries are just so creepy somehow and the journey to the seashore is not just some innocent trip. The blackberries have “blue-red” juice, and the narrator claims the fruit squanders the juice on her fingers in some weird sort of “blood sisterhood” with her. The ripe bush is described as so ripe “it is a bush of flies, /Hanging their blue green bellies” (ew…). Even the birds overhead are seen as “Bits of burnt paper wheeling in a blown sky.” I’m unclear as to whether the seashore is ever reached, and if it is, is it a good thing, because upon finishing the final turn on the path the narrator is met with a sound as if silversmiths are “Beating and beating at an intractable metal.” I’m sorry, but that is not a beach I want to visit…and I’m not sure I’ll be able to eat blackberries for awhile. Again this poem makes me think of despair. There is a desire to reach something beautiful but it just doesn’t happen.

The Arrival of the Bee Box

Out of all of the poems from Plath on the list, this one seems the most mundane to me. A box arrives, full of bees, and the speaker goes on this whole thing about it and how it is clean, and it is dangerous, and the bees are noisy, and how she gets to play God and decide whether or not to let them out and…well, you see my point. The best is the final line (no, not because it means the poem is over); “The box is only temporary.” Could be a bigger metaphor for how Plath felt about her own life: trapped in a box and feeling like something bigger has the power to set her free but won’t despite her very vocal requests for that to happen (see Lady Lazarus). But really, I couldn’t say for sure.

The Applicant

This poem leaves me somewhat unsettled for some reason. It is definitely a conversation, but I have not worked out who is talking and what exactly is happening in the conversation. My guess is that the “applicant” is a woman, but almost a shell of one, or some sort of doll, and she is being inspected in some way (*shudder*). I am also guessing that the repeated question of “Will you marry it?” is being posed to a male who is along for the interview of “the applicant.” When talking about the applicant the speaker mentions that “It can sew, it can cook, /It can talk, talk, talk.” I want to say it is like a woman or doll is being interviewed to marry some guy and the seller is going over the specs. At one point the seller gives the male a black suit and then proceeds to tell him “Believe me, they’ll bury you in it.” I mean the whole thing is just strange. There are some serious traces of passive aggressive anger here, and considering how Plath’s marriage to Ted Hughes ended, it really isn’t all that surprising.


I don’t really like this one…it makes me sad. The second line of “My thumb instead of onion” makes the statement that this was an accident, yet the detail and description of the blood coming out if the wound has a little too much sadistic enjoyment in it for me to think that the wounded is just running for the iodine and gauze. The narrator is watching this wound as if it were putting on a show for her. “A celebration, this is,” really says it all. And yet, it is also a battle where “A million soldiers run, /Redcoats, every one.” There is also mention of a saboteur, Kamikaze man, the Ku Klux Klan, and many many creative descriptions of the red blood coming out of the thumb. I’m just saying, cutting my thumb does not make me want to stop and write poetry about it…

I feel a bit like Queen Latifah's character in Stranger Than Fiction when Emma Thompson's character asks her "What do you think about jumping off a building?" and Queen Latifah only answers, "I don't think about jumping off of buildings...I try to think of nice things." Yeah...fabulous movie by the way...

Lady Lazarus

This is one of Plath’s “Holocaust Poems” along with “Daddy” and “Mary’s Song.” She uses WWII Nazi Germany imagery to denote oppression. Plath even describes the narrator’s face as a “featureless, fine/Jew linen.” All the narrator wishes to do is die but “Herr Doktor” and “Herr Enemy” (just to name two particular other characters she names) keep bringing her back to life. Every ten years she seems to die, but is brought back to life. It has happened three times so far: the first time was an accident, and the second time was a real attempt on the narrator’s part to die. The poem begins after the narrator’s third attempt, and Plath uses phoenix imagery to describe this instance. By the end of the poem she has risen out of the ashes just like the phoenix, but now hunts down and tries to eat the men who keep bringing her back. Weird wild stuff. I could make it about redemption, except this person really wants to kill herself.

A Little More History

Short version: Plath gets married to Ted Hughes, has two kids with him, he leaves her for another one and eventually succumbs to her depression and kills herself by putting her head in an oven. She mad sure the kids were taken care of before she committed the act. Really sad thing: Assia Wevill, the woman Hughes left Plath for, committed suicide in the exact same way Plath did six years later, but she also killed her child as well. Even sadder thing: as I have already mentioned, Plath’s son committed suicide in 2009 by hanging himself, now leaving his sister as the only survivor of their immediate family.

Plath struggled with depression and made many attempts on her own life before finally being successful with the last one. Some friends say she often spoke of these attempts at great length and in sweet and loving detail.

And on the extremely depressing note, I will say that next time we will talk about Theodore Roethke, who shares an item number with Plath on the list and is also considered to be a Confessional Poet.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Required Poet: William Wordsworth

This actually wasn’t as bad as I was anticipating…and I do love being able to say that. Wordsworth’s language wasn’t half as cryptic as I though it would be, so I had a much easier time understanding him than I did Milton or Donne. I guess it would make sense, though, being as he is a 19th poet as opposed to a 17th century one. Really the only piece I was annoyed with was The Prelude, so let’s do that one first.

The Prelude, Books 1 & XI

Genre: Philosophical and autobiographical poem in blank verse (unrhymed iambic pentameter). Wordsworth began writing this long poem when he was 28 and worked on it for the rest of his life without publishing it. It contains 14 books, but thankfully, we only have to read books I and XI. And I guess what keeps it from being an epic is that it isn’t really a narrative nor does it contain themes that concern an entire people…I think.
Themes: Constant reflection is what I got, especially concerning Book I which is even titled “Introduction – Childhood and School-Time.” Book XI is entitled “Imagination, How Impaired and Restored,” and goes with most of the other books and another general theme of Wordsworth reflecting on his vocation as a poet and how it has developed over his life. It is a spiritual autobiography that focuses on Wordsworth’s mind and imagination, which is in stark contrast to say, someone like Milton, who wrote Paradise Lost and focused on the relationship between man and God.
History: The Prelude was first published three months after Wordsworth’s death and it is said that he was greatly troubled by the idea that it would never be finished. If he had completed it the way he wanted to, it would have been three times longer that Paradise Lost. But honestly, he worked on it from the ages of 28 to 80…if he hadn’t finished it yet, would he ever? Just saying…

Lines composed a few miles above Tintern Abbey

Genre: Tightly structured blank verse with elements of an ode, dramatic monologue, and the conversation poem. The label of conversation poem is chosen as it is Wordsworth’s sister, Dorothy that he is addressing in the end.
Themes: There is much description of the area surrounding the abandoned Tintern Abbey and these descriptions outline Wordsworth’s general theories on nature. He also often looks back on a time when Tintern Abbey was not in ruins, and switches time between the past, present, and future. The poem manages to blend the spiritual with the natural as Wordsworth kind of worships the nature around Tintern Abbey by use of words and phrases such as “divine creation” and “sublime.” Because of the surrounding nature, Wordsworth feels alleviated from his doubts about God, religion, and the meaning of life.
History: Tintern Abbey was abandoned in 1536, and Wordsworth’s first visit to it was in 1793 and without his sister. Now, in 1798, he is visiting once again with his sister, whom he is addressing in the poem. Wordsworth claims to have composed the entire poem in his mind while walking away from Tintern Abbey, and wrote it down later.


Genre: “Michael” is a pastoral poem that details the life of a simple shepherd and eventually focuses on the loss of his land and eventually his son and life.
Themes: There is definitely a general theme of loss coupled with sacrifice in this poem. Michael’s life initially starts out well as he is a landowning shepherd who eventually gets married and has one son, Luke. Michael then sacrifices half of his land in order to help a nephew who has fallen on hard financial times. In the hope of getting the land back, he sends away his son to the big city to learn a trade a gain the wealth to eventually buy the and back, but instead Luke becomes corrupted by the big city and is forced to leave the country, leaving Michael without his land, son, and eventually his life. For me it is a bigger picture of the loss of the simpler ways of life, as Michael is a simple aging shepherd who loses his son to the big city.
History: This poem was published along in the 1800 edition of Lyrical Ballads.

Resolution and Independence

Genre: Lyrical poem written in rhyme royal (a rhyme royal stanza consists of seven lines all in iambic pentameter…think Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde) that expresses personal and emotional feelings.
Themes: On the surface this is a poem about Wordsworth’s encounter with a leech-gatherer (yep, that is a thing apparently). The poem starts out with the poet’s joy of taking a simple walk outside, then all of a sudden at stanza IV, the nature surrounding the poet isn’t that great anymore and the poet is suddenly overwhelmed by feelings of anxiety over his own future (“And fears, and fancies, thick upon me came”). After rather morbid thoughts about past poets who all died fairly young, the poet comes upon a leech-gatherer whop accepts his own hardships with patience and acceptance, therefore lifting the spirits of the poet. Throughout the poem, the poet goes through a full range of emotions going from blind happiness, to dejection, and then to a sort of peace despite his own fears.
History: Apparently Wordsworth actually did encounter a leech-gatherer two years before he wrote the poem. He coupled his experience with the leech-gatherer with the despondent feelings he felt two years later on one of his many walks.

The Ruined Cottage

Genre: I think with this one I will go with either dramatic monologue or conversation poem, or both, written in blank verse. In the poem, an old man is telling the poet a story about Margaret, a woman who used to live in the now ruined cottage. It could almost be considered an ode as well as it the old man could easily dedicate his story to Margaret.
Themes: This poem reminds of “Michael” in that it tells the story of someone whose life started out well, and then went horribly wrong due to circumstances beyond their control. Margaret grows up, gets married, has a kid, then her household is stricken by famine and disease, leading to her husband leaving her after he has regained his strength, then the death of her child, then the death of Margaret. Yeah, pretty depressing.
History: This poem was published in 1800 in Lyrical Ballads.

Preface to Lyrical Ballads (1802)

Genre: An essay by Wordsworth for the second edition of Lyrical Ballads in which he basically presents his argument for what poetry is and how it should be written.
Themes: Basically, I can sum up the argument with this: Wordsworth believed in writing about situations common to men in language that is actually used by men only with more imagination while using the primary laws of nature. Maybe this is why I can understand him so much more easily than others – he seemed to believe in keeping it simple. No more of this elevated speech nonsense.
History: Wordsworth’s theories greatly influenced the expansion of serious literature so that even the common man could read it and enjoy it, since it was about things the ordinary man actually took part in and understand as it also used his language.

A little more history…

Wordsworth, along with Samuel Taylor Coleridge, helped launch the Romantic Age of English literature, which was a reaction to the Industrial Revolution and a rejection of the aristocratic social and political norms of the Age of Enlightenment (hence the emphasis on the common man as well as language and events they would be familiar with). It was also a reaction against the scientific approach to nature and emphasized the use of imagination and feeling. Along with Wordsworth and Coleridge, the other major Romantic poets were William Blake, George Gordon, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and of course John Keats.

See, now that wasn’t so. Next time I’ll jump ahead about 150 years to Sylvia Plath. While not my favorite poet, at least she uses language and themes I can relate to just a little bit more easily.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Optional Work: Frankenstein

Okay, I really should label Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein a monster as well, and not just because it deals with the creation of one. This is one of those books that is only 197 pages long but somehow takes forever to read. Maybe it is the language or maybe it is just the way the story is formatted (the whole story within a story within a story…seriously, look into it), but this book just takes me forever to read. To be fair, there is a lot there and the book is so dense. Anyway, with that in mind, let’s get to it.


We got some horror (yea!), the gothic, romance, and of course, science fiction. Horror and science fiction are fairly straight-forward and easily understood by the general public (a monster is created out of spare human parts and proceeds to kill a couple of people out of neglect and bitterness), but for mostly my sake, because I can’t seem to be able to grasp some of these genre definitions, I’ll go a little more into gothic and romance.

Gothic – Combines both horror and romance. Includes terror, mystery, the supernatural, darkness, death, doubles, madness, and on and on we can go. It includes the kind of terror that you can’t turn away from no matter how much it affects you and scares you. Something keeps you watching or reading or involved in some way because somewhere something inside of you is enjoying it. And that, in and of itself, is a little horrifying.

Romance – includes a look back at the past, heroic isolation of the artist or narrator, and respect for a sort of wild part of nature. Romantic authors include Edgar Allan Poe and Nathaniel Hawthorne, so that should actually help clear things up a little. Honestly, this romance genre will have me confused for the rest of my life, but I am getting there.

The argument that this is actually the first true science fiction novel is supported by the fact that here, Victor Frankenstein actually makes the choice to turn to his laboratory to conduct a fantastic experiment that just happens to go horribly horribly wrong.


Let’s start with the obvious – the other. I would be hard pressed to think of a more appropriate example of an other than the monster that Victor manages to create. He doesn’t ask to created, and it is pretty clear he shouldn’t have been, and then he is rejected by everyone and everything, including his creator, only to die in some frozen wilderness alone in a horrible isolation. He is the ultimate outsider, and the only hope of no longer being on the margins comes after it is too late.

The argument has often been presented that the monster serves as sort of a double or doppelganger to Victor, which I am totally willing to buy. He is Victor’s creation (Victor gave birth to him, if you will…but I understand if you don’t), so there is a part of Victor in him. Much hard work and many nights of research and the stealing of body parts and organs went into making this thing. And once it is all finished, once the goal has been reached, Victor is horrified by what he sees. He is horrified by the monster and therefore horrified by the part of himself that was included in this and helped make it. In fact, that may be what has sickened Victor the most about the monster – he can see himself in this thing he utterly rejects. Victor then, understandably, attempts to distance himself from his creation, but it is simply not meant to be. The two are forever linked, even after Victor’s death.

Victor suffers from what I like to call Capt. Ahab syndrome (take a guess where I am going with this one). And the primary symptom of Capt. Ahab syndrome is the unending desire to do that which will eventually kill you even though it will, well, kill you. Oh yeah, and sufferers of this know it will kill them, but they do it anyway. And what makes this even more fascinating with Frankenstein is the fact that Victor is not the only who has this. Capt. Robert Walton also has this, and the crew of his ship are even aware (much like the crew of another famous literary ship…I promise I won’t say it) that his expedition will eventually end all of their lives if he does not give it up. Of course in Moby Dick (ah dangit!...sorry guys), Capt. Ahab already had his leg bitten off once, and then his first fake leg is bitten off, and then he still continues, only to die. Capt. Walton hasn’t had any experience such as that, but he knows death gets closer the further he goes in his expedition. And this serves to make Capt. Walton another double for Victor, which makes sense because, after all, Capt. Walton is the one telling the entire story.

And finally, I just have to bring up this strange level of cluelessness (that's probably not a word but go with me here) in this novel, mostly on the side of Victor. He is a smart guy, no question about it. I mean, you would have to be in order to, you know, CREATE LIFE! But while his scientific mind is intact, he lacks that all-important common sense. My first piece of evidence in this is when he creates life without thinking ahead to the consequences and is therefore horrified beyond belief. I mean, when has playing God ever really worked out? My second piece of evidence comes from the fact that he can manage to fashion a man out of bits and pieces he picks up here and there and gives it life in his lab, but when the monster requests a female companion, he has to go off to another land to do his research. And then, he doesn’t even complete it, so the reader doesn’t even get to see if he would have been successful even after his extensive research. He also seems generally oblivious to how to deal with women, even when it comes to his bride, Elizabeth. Shelley also uses the apparent gap between Victor’s mental knowledge and social knowledge to also illuminate the unequal education between men and women. Victor has every educational opportunity he could want and manages to screw up royally, while women like Elizabeth do not, and horrifyingly enough, she falls victim to Victor’s supposed intelligence.


Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus was initially published anonymously with a preface written by Percy Bysshe Shelley, which consequently lead to speculations of whether the 21 year-old Mary wrote it, or whether her 26 year-old husband did. The story was written out of a competition Mary and her husband, as well as Lord Byron and John Polidori, decided to hold together to see who could write the best horror story. Shelley dreamt of a scientist who created a life and was horrified by it, and so Frankenstein was written.

The novel is also a reaction to the emerging influence of science in Shelley’s time. Yes, all of these wonderful advances are being made, but how far would it go? And what would be the consequence?

Wow, that was actually fun. However, I doubt the next post on Wordsworth will be.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Optional Poet: John Milton

That is right, I chose this stuff, and it may end up being my undoing. So I have decided that in order to keep this post at a readable length, instead of going through the usual categories of genre, theme, and history, and then doing a small blurb on each separate poem, instead I will just go through each poem (or essay) separately in chronological order and cover everything that way.

On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity

Genre: Nativity ode connecting the Incarnation (when Mary was informed by the angel that she would bear the Messiah), and the Crucifixion.
Themes: Christ’s nativity and his crucifixion. Christ becomes human and then later redeems humanity in his crucifixion. Also, the poem deals with Christ’s overthrow of earthly and pagan powers.
History: Written in 1629 and published in 1645. Not his first work but often put first in collections and anthologies.


Genre: Pastoral poem - the author places the complex life into a simple one.
Theme: The poem is of course paired with the contrasting poem Il Penseroso. L’Allegro is Italian for “the happy man,” Il Penseroso is Italian for “the melancholy man.” This poem is playful and set in a pastoral scene where the character connects with folk stories and fairy tales as well as comedic plays. There is an emphasis on the active and cheerful life. Mirth, one of the graces, is invoked and is connected to poetry within Renaissance literature.
History: Scholars really aren’t sure when this was written, but it was published in 1645 in the first collection.

Il Penseroso

Genre: A vision of poetic melancholy and a companion poem to L’Allegro.
Themes: Instead of wandering through a pastoral scene, the main character is wanders through an urban environment while the poem emphasizes a solitary and scholarly lifestyle. The main character focuses his studies on philosophy, allegory, tragedy, Classical hymns, and Christian hymns. Melancholy is invoked and there is an emphasis on experience and the understanding of nature. It seems to be hinted that because the main character in this poem is allowed to see more than the one in L’Allegro, he isn’t as blindly happy.
History: Just like with L’Allegro, scholars are not sure when this poem was written, but it was published in 1645.

A Mask Presented at Ludlow Castle [Comus]

Genre: Masque – festive courtly entertainment. A masque usually involved music, dancing, singing, and acting, all with an elaborate stage design.
Themes: Milton wrote this masque in honor of chastity. Basically there is this poor girl kidnapped by a debauched Comus who tries to get her to drink some liquid that would overpower her (get her drunk) and allow him to ravish her, but she argues for temperance and chastity. She holds up her argument while her brother eventually find someone who can help her, chase off and Comus, and free her from his house. In this, Milton uses the Lady to assert his belief in the individual free will, while Comus attempts to argue that the base appetites and desires of humans are natural. The Lady continually argues that only rational self-control is enlightened and virtuous.
History: The masque was first presented on Michaelmas in 1634, and was published in 1645. It was written to celebrate the appointment of Lord Bridgewater to the post of Lord President of Wales. Bridgewater’s own children were the principal actors in the masque.


Genre: A speech or prose polemical tract – an argument made against one opinion, doctrine, or person. Here, Milton is arguing against pre-publication censorship and arguing for freedom of speech.
Themes: Free speech, individual rights, freedom to read and decide for yourself what is right and good for you…no one should be deciding that for you. Now, it is important to note that Milton was all about this freedom for white educated Protestant males. Also, he was not making the argument for any Atheist or Catholic publications. So really, branding this an argument against censorship is a bit short-sighted in the grand scheme of things. Also, many biblical references abound. As many as they are, they actually did help me see his point more clearly. But this is a long essay…definitely the longest work listed on this page.
History: Written in 1644 at the height of the English Civil War.


Genre: Pastoral elegy – a mournful and melancholy poem. Also be a funeral song or lament for the dead.
Themes: The poem was written in memory of Milton’s friend, Edward King, who died when his ship sank in the Irish Sea off the coast of Wales in August of 1637. The poem starts off in a pastoral scene, but even the scene cannot stop the poet from lamenting his friend, Lycidas. The poet then begins to recall his adventures with Lycidas and attempts to juxtapose remembering his life with the awful even of his death.
History: Lycidas is one of the poems in the 1645 collection that was actually written in English as opposed to Greek and Latin.

How Soon Hath Time

Genre: Sonnet – “little song” or “little sound.” Sonnets usually contain 14 lines (and this one does as well), and most sonnets stick to a certain rhyme, but then there are many variations. For instance, Shakespeare, Donne, and Spenser all do their own thing with their sonnets.
Themes: All three sonnets that I will be covering seem to have a general sense of regret in them. With this one, either his 23rd year has snuck up on him, or it has already passed and gone. Either way, he is a bit shocked and not quite sure what to do. And while he feels he should do something, he doesn’t think he is quite ready “And inward ripeness doth much less appear.”
History: It was published in 1645 with the rest of the above but I cannot for the life of me figure out when it was written.

When I Consider How My Light Is Spent

Genre: Sonnet
Themes: Written after Milton has lost his sight. In the poem he seems to come to terms with the idea that while he can no longer write, due to his loss of sight, he can still serve his maker (God) and glorify Him as God does not need “man’s work or his own gifts.” Milton finally asserts that “They also serve who only stand and wait.” There is heavy use of the word “light,” and more than one mention of waiting and patience.
History: It has been dated as having been written in 1655 and was published in 1673. As I mentioned, this was written after Milton lost his eye sight, essentially for his work. And now he realizes that in the end, works aren’t important.

Methought I Saw My Late Espoused Saint

Genre: Sonnet
Themes: Written after the death of his second wife, and also after he has lost his sight, so the idea of him seeing his second wife makes for an interesting image. Once again, more references to vision (or a lack thereof), and the last line actually makes me extremely sad. When people wake up it is usually to daylight, but because of Milton’s blindness, he was able to see clear as day in his dreams and then wakes up only to darkness.
History: Milton’s second wife, Katherine, dies after giving birth to their daughter, and soon afterwards, the baby dies as well. It was written around 1656.

Samson Agonistes

Genre: Tragic Closet Drama – written as a play but not meant to ever be performed live before an audience. Many people die.
Themes: At the beginning of the play, Samson is blind and in prison. The whole mess with his hair being cut and Delilah being awful to him is done and gone. At this point he has come to terms with his fate and realizes he has brought them all upon himself. As his hair grows back, he is summoned to come before the Philistines where he redeems himself by making the ultimate sacrifice – killing him while also killing the Philistines by taking down the pillars in the building. There is more reiteration of Milton’s belief in individual free choice, therefore causing Samson to blame no one but himself, with the occasional remarks made about Delilah.
History: This was actually my favorite work of Milton’s that I have read and I can see the links between this story and Milton’s own life. When this was written, Milton had also gone blind and would actually also be imprisoned for a short-time, but most likely took place after he wrote this, but before it was published. From this story, it would seem that Milton also felt that he lost his sight due to his own doing and mistakes and was resigned to his fate, but also looking for a chance to redeem himself. And while Samson committed his greatest act after his downfall, Milton wrote what have been argues as his best works after he lost his sight and the Revolution he supported had failed. It was most likely written in the 1640s or 1650s. Milton temporarily gave up his poetic career to work for Oliver Cromwell and the Commonwealth government. He continued this despite his failing eyesight and there are no questions that he knew his eyesight was failing him. Short version: He supported the execution of Charles I, praised Oliver Cromwell as the Protectorate was set up, but later had reservations as Cromwell proved to not be as committed as Milton had hoped, the Revolution fails, and Milton is silenced politically when Charles II takes the throne. Oh yeah, and this is the cause he gave his sight for. Yeah…

And it is done! I can’t believe I just did that! And I assure you I will never do it again! Such relief! Such…okay I’ll stop now. I think I’ll try this same format with Wordsworth with maybe a little more history put on at the end. These English poets are tough, but, this is the fate of the English major I guess.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Required Work: The Faerie Queene

Thankfully (and I really cannot stress enough my gratitude for the what I am about to point out), we only have to read all of Book I and Cantos 1, 5-6, and 9-12 of Book III. Seriously, I am so grateful for that fact, I can’t even…there are no words…really.


Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene is without a doubt an epic poem. It is a long narrative poem dealing with the heroic deeds of several different people, with each book more or less dealing with a specific virtue in relation to a specific knight. This makes the work an allegory as it communicates the message by means of symbolic figures, actions, or symbolic representation – in the most general sense an allegory is an extended metaphor. It was written in praise of Queen Elizabeth I, and therefore found political favor with the Queen and became a success.

It is the first work written in what is now known as Spenserian stanza: each stanza is nine lines long with the first eight being in iambic pentameter and the last being in iambic hexameter (the rhyme scheme of all nine lines is ababbcbcc). I have to say that this formatting really helped me when reading it. Sure, a lot of the language was simply beyond me and I gained a great deal of my understanding of it through context, but the Spenserian stanzas worked better for me than I felt the poem would have if it wasn’t broken up at all (Milton, I am looking in your direction).


As I already mentioned, each of the six books is a celebration of a different virtue through a corresponding character. Now, the poem is unfinished (that’s right, it was actually supposed to be longer), so the following list does not contain all of the virtues Spenser had wished to cover:

Book I: Holiness
Book II: Temperance
Book III: Chastity
Book IV: Friendship
Book V: Justice
Book VI: Courtesy

In a letter Spenser wrote to Sir Walter Raleigh, it is suggested that Arthur represents the virtue of Magnificence, while the Faerie Queen herself represents Glory. Also, the unfinished seventh book may have been meant for the virtue of constancy.

The poem celebrates and memorializes the Tudor dynasty, of which Queen Elizabeth I was a part, and suggests that the Tudor lineage can be traced back to King Arthur. Also, many prominent Elizabethans were at least partially represented throughout the poem, the most notable of which is Queen Elizabeth I herself as Gloriana, the Faerie Queene. However, the poem also manages to criticize the Tudors as well. In the sixth book Spenser attempts to deal with the issue of the political policy towards Ireland, and in Book I, scholars and critics believe he modeled the character of Lucifera after Queen Elizabeth I. The name alone should tell you that this is not an entirely favorable representation, but Lucifera in The Faerie Queene is a queen who has the Court of Pride that masks a dungeon full of prisoners. The Faerie Queene is overall representative of Elizabethan England, but even with the odd critique, it is mostly a favorable one.

For the purposes of the exam, we are only being asked to deal with Book I and parts of Book III. Book I tells the story of the Redcrosse Knight (for the virtue of Holiness) who ends up learning of his English ancestry (so convenient) and slays the dragon that has laid waste to Eden. He eventually marries Una, who is the representation of the “true church” (get it? The “true church” eventually marries “holiness,” which is found out to have English lineage…). She defeats Duessa, who is supposed to represent the “false church” or Catholicism and/or Mary, Queen of Scots. There is even an ensuing trial that ends in Duessa’s beheading.

Book III tells the story of Britomart (for the virtue of Chastity), a female knight who is able to defeat every other knight she encounters due to an enchanted spear she carries with her. She goes on her quest because she has fallen in love with Artegal, the champion of Justice. He is the only knight who defeats Britomart, and after seeing her beauty after removing her helmet, he falls in love with her….like you do.

Of course, characters from the Arthurian legends make their appearance, such as Arthur himself and Merlin the magician.


Clearly, Spenser would have had to have a very firm grasp not only of English history, but also of Arthurian legend. And he could not have made a better politically than to link his current Queen with the legendary King Arthur.

The Tudors adopted the prophecy, put forth by medieval writer Geoffrey of Monmouth, that the Britons will be restored to power by Arthur. Through Owen Tudor, the Tudors had Welsh blood which they believed made them descendants of Arthur and therefore rightful rulers of Briton. So really, for Spenser to not pick Arthur and use Arthurian legends as sources would have been like passing up the free gift with purchase…I mean who does that?

Now I will take this moment to sing the praises of On September 1st I ordered The Major Works of William Wordsworth (Oxford) along with another book and still had not received it by September 10th even though the tracking information said it had been delivered. I contacted Amazon through their website and they are resending me both books at no charge, no questions asked, with overnight shipping. Now THAT is service. Of course, that means I now have to read Wordsworth…but even before that, I have to get through Milton.