Thursday, May 26, 2011

Required Poet: Sir Philip Sidney

This process wasn’t quite as painful as I was expecting it to be, but posting on it will most likely prove challenging as not only will I have to deal with sonnets, but the bulk of the reading for Sir Philip Sidney, when it comes to the M.A. Exam, actually comes from an essay. I almost chose the selections from The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia for my reading list, since I have actually read the whole thing, but I didn’t want to be bothered with reading Lady Mary Worth, which shares an item number with the Arcadia on the reading list. Either way, I do think my past experience with Sidney helped me when reading his The Defence of Poetry and Astrophel and Stella. Hopefully, I can pass whatever clarity I gained onto you.


Astrophel and Stella is an English sonnet sequence containing 108 sonnets and 11 songs. For the purpose of the M.A. exam, we fortunately only have to read seven sonnets and two songs. Sidney uses the Petrarchan model for the sonnets, where emotions vary from sonnet to sonnet in an ongoing yet somewhat obscure narrative. He also adopted the Petrarchan rhyme scheme, but through the use of different variations, he breaks free of the strict rhyming requirements of the Italian form.

The Defence of Poetry is an essay in which Sidney addresses the general objections to poetry, such as those of Plato. It is considered to be a significant contribution to the genre of literary criticism. His basic idea is that poetry combines the better parts of history and philosophy, therefore making it more effective than either history or philosophy in pushing the reader on towards virtue. He makes his point with comments on Plato, Aristotle, Edmund Spenser, and many references of the Bible.


For Astrophel and Stella, Astrophel (aster = star, phil = lover) is the star lover while Stella is the star. Included along with the 15 different variations of the Petrarchan rhyme scheme are the philosophical elements of the Petrarchan model with the poet contemplating love and desire. There are also thoughts from the poet on the art of poetic creation, another Petrarchan element (“Invention, nature’s child, fled step-dame Study’s blows, / And others’ feet still seemed but strangers in my way. / Thus, great with child to speak, and helpless in my throes,/ Bitiny my truant pen, beating myself for spite,/ Fool, said my muse to me, look in thy heart and write.”).

In his The Defence of Poetry, what Sidney is defending is poetry’s nobility and its place within the aristocratic state. His argument is that what makes poetry noble is its ability to move readers to virtuous action (“…but it is that faining notable images of vertues, vices, or what els, with that delightfull teaching, which must be the right describing note to know a Poet by.”). As I mentioned before, he comments on Plato and Aristotle, and actually uses drama as sort of the anti-poetry, since poets never claim to know the truth and do not try to manipulate the reader (according to Sidney), and drama does not deal in “honest civility” and also is not done as skillfully. Sidney also likens the poet to that of a soldier, drawing the conclusion that poetry requires some amount of courage. He also begins the argument with a horse and saddle metaphor and expands the metaphor as he continues with his defense. And of course, it is always good to throw in some references to the Bible to help your case, and when talking about poetry, Sidney goes right to the book of Psalms and its author David (“But even the name of Psalms wil speak for me, which being interpreted, is nothing but Songs: then that it is fully written in meter as all learned Hebritians agree, although the rules be not yet fully found.”).

Another prominent theme in The Defence of Poetry is its general structure as a judicial oration for an actual defense in a trial. He uses forensic rhetoric to state that poetry creates a separate reality, has a long history, and does not lie.


It has been suggested that the characters of Astrophel and Stella are based on Sidney himself and Penelope Rich, the wife of a courtier. Other critics, or course, reject this idea and believe Sidney just created a fictional persona for this set of sonnets. What is most notable about the work is that in it Sidney moved away from the strict Italian Petrarchan form and gave his distinctly English poems more freedom and variation. He took the key features of the Italian model and organized them to better for England.

It is believed that The Defence of Poetry was somewhat motivated by Stephen Gosson and his play The School of Abuse, which Gosson used to attack Sidney and imaginative literature in 1579. Its influence on the genre of literary criticism can be seen throughout history – from Samuel Taylor Coleridge, to William Wordsworth, and even John Donne.

From here I would usually begin going into each individual sonnet from Astrophel and Stella, but I decided to dgo against that since they all contribute to one larger story and we are only reading seven non-sequential pieces and two songs. Also, to be completely honest, I am not sure what more I could say about them that would be at all helpful. The best thing to do at this point would be to just read them. And if you do gain anymore insights I do entreat you to please share them. We’ll need all the help we can get…

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Required Poet: Walt Whitman

Okay, so as expected I did not take to Mr. Whitman as I did to Emily Dickinson. I do understand why they share an item number of the M.A. exam list, but I cannot say that I appreciate them both the same amount. Dickinson thought his poetry was “disgraceful,” and while I do not necessarily agree with that, I can see where she is coming from. I get why he is so well-loved, and I can definitely see the influence he had on Allen Ginsberg. But overall, even after struggling through every line of “Song of Myself,” I have to conclude that this guy is just not for me.


Poetry…or maybe more accurately poetry that often closely resembles prose. And definitely American poetry, however that may be defined. The long (and often rambling) lines did remind me of Ginsberg’s “Howl.” Also, much like Ginsberg later on, Whitman’s work was blasted in its time for its overt sexuality and was often labeled as “obscene.”

Whitman was a humanist (reason, ethics, and justice as opposed to supernatural and religious dogma as a basis for morality and decision-making) and was part of the transition between transcendentalism (which some say Dickinson was a part of) and realism, and he incorporated both in his works. He believed in a vital, symbiotic relationship between the poet and society, a connection he emphasized greatly in “Song of Myself” with the all-powerful first-person narrator.

The genres of each of the poems can also be discussed in terms of which section they were placed under in Leaves of Grass, which I will talk about later.


There is a lot of nature in Whitman’s poetry: birds, greenery, water, etc. He also openly writes about death (much like Dickinson) and sexuality, including his own. It is believed by many biographers that he was at least bisexual according to some of his poetry. He openly employs free verse and, as far as I could tell, rarely, if ever, uses rhyme scheme.

Also, as mentioned before, his realism and transcendentalism are represented in his poetry. Instead of romanticizing, Whitman depicted ordinary everyday experiences, activities, and people as they were. Another common theme in the same vein as realism was his assumption of the identity of everyday common people on “Song of Myself.” Whitman decided to go against the common trend of using an elevated hero, although I have conflicting feelings about this because the narrator is obviously pretty powerful and not a common person, so I am not quite sure what to make of this. Perhaps he was supposed to represent everybody by being all-powerful? I have no clue… The transcendentalism influence can also be seen in multiple passages of “Song of Myself” and Ralph Waldo Emerson praised the first edition for it.

Whitman was also a deist (no one more faith is more important than the other and he embraced all religions equally), and the one place I can clearly see that coming through is in the following lines of “Song of Myself,” although I am sure there are many other examples elsewhere that were simply lost on me:

“I do not despise you priests, all time, the world over,

My faith is the greatest of faiths and the least of faiths,

Enclosing worship ancient and modern and all between

ancient and modern,

Believing I shall come again upon the earth after five

thousand years…”

From here Whitman goes on to mention Shastas, Vedas, the Koran, the Gospels, “him that was crucified,” and even puritans. The point is made that he wishes to include all faiths and not hold any one of them above the rest.

Of course, there will be more discussion regarding themes when I explore the actual poems.


Whitman began writing Leaves of Grass (which contains all of the works included on the M.A. exam list) around 1850 and continued to revise and edit it until his death. He wanted to write a distinctly American epic and used free verse with a Bible-based cadence.

Upon its publication, other transcendentalist such as Emerson and Thoreau loved it, while many critics decided to label it as offensive and focus on what they saw as its problematic sexual themes. As mentioned before, Whitman fell somewhere between transcendentalist and realism, so many believe his work actually anticipated realism instead of becoming a product of it. He is also often referred to as the “Father of Free Verse,” even though he was not the one who invented it.

Whitman was a strong supporter of temperance and sometimes argued for prohibition, and while he at first opposed abolition (he felt it was bad for democracy), eventually opposed the extension of slavery in America and criticized the south for not thinking of the greater good of the nation. However, he did not believe African-Americans should be allowed to vote and was concerned with the growing number of them in the legislature.

And now I will turn to the actual poems, and hopefully my interpretations won’t lead anyone astray. Unfortunately, with Whitman I do not have the benefit of working with short poems like I did with Dickinson, but I will try to make this as quick and painless as possible.

Song of Myself

For me, this poem embodies the idea of an American epic. The narrator is an all-powerful everyman who is attempting to relate to the common people of America. Several themes are explored here, and not just Whitman’s usual suspects such as nature, death, religion, and sexuality. There is a strong presence of affirmative images of American culture. And I find the narrative voice especially interesting because he just seems so triumphant and exultant, although I suppose that is kind of the point. The “I” in the poem is both the ideal and the commoner. He is a relatable hero.

In Paths Untrodden

Here the poet wishes to travel the paths that were denied him before – paths of unknown and unpredictable human behavior. He wants to take a journey of self-discovery, commune with nature, and explore his formerly suppressed spirituality. This poem falls under the heading of Calamus, which grows in a secluded place near a pond, which suggests serenity and even peace.

When I Heard at the Close of the Day

And this is one of the poems that cause critics and biographer to assert that Whitman was at least bisexual, if not gay. The poem describes that even after a day of career success, the narrator is only fully happy when he realizes his lover is on his way to see him. After this realization the narrator asserts that food would nourish him better, breathing was sweeter, and the “beautiful day pass’d well.” And when the two finally lay together in bed that night, then the narrator proclaims “I was happy.” This poem also falls under the Calamus heading.

Crossing Brooklyn Ferry

We are still under Calamus with this poem. Originally titled “Sun-Down Poem,” the major image in the poem is that of the ferry, which symbolizes continual movement. The ferry moves from land to land via water, which could make water the spiritual and land the physical. The movement is also associated with the people who are riding the ferry, have ridden it, or who will ride it in the future. The narrator contemplates his place in this continual movement, as well as that of everyone riding with him, and even the reader at some points as the ferry steadily moves toward its destination. At the end, the two shores can be seen to represent mortality and immortality, and the water is man’s journey from one to the other.

Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking

This poem falls under the Sea-Drift section of Leaves of Grass and once again has a theme of water. From the constantly rocking cradle of the waves the poet remembers when as a child he left his bed in search of the mystery of life and death. What he encounters, and then proceeds to tell the story of, is two mockingbirds. One day the female is gone and the male sits and sings to the wind how he will wait for his mate. The bird is the young boy’s consciousness, and the sea is what gives him his answer. The title itself is an image of birth, and the sun, moon, land, sea, bird, and wind lend to the dramatic structure.

When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d

These last two poems fall under the Memories of President Lincoln heading. This particular one is an elegy on the death of the former president. It moves from the personal, to the impersonal, to grief, and then finally to reconciliation on the truth of life and death. It is a symbolic dramatization of the narrator’s grief, yet there are many symbols used and none of them appear to stay fixed. He uses lilacs, a star, a bird, the planet Venus, and many other images to talk about his grief. It ends with the narrator’s realization of immortality after confronting his personal loss.

O Captain! My Captain!

This is also an elegy for President Lincoln, although it isn’t nearly as touching or as long. Personally I like this poem, but it is probably because I can actually link it to something I know a little more about, and that is Starbuck’s plea to Captain Ahab during some of the final moments in Moby Dick before all hell breaks loose. The poem begins on a happy note, as the “prize we sought is won,” but the celebration is short-lived as it appears the captain is now dead. Whitman repeats phrases such as “fallen cold and dead,” while still urging the hero to rise up and celebrate the momentous victory. I will go ahead and assume that the victory was the North finally triumphing over the South at the end of the Civil War, but now President Lincoln has been shot and can’t even see the true result of his efforts. The narrator then continues to urge the masses to celebrate, while he will choose to mourn the death of his Captain.

So, not that painful actually. There were some rough moments, but overall, not that bad at all. I believe next week I will go ahead and tackle Sir Philip Sidney’s The Defense of Poesy and the selections from Astrophil and Stella. Eventually I will get to Milton’s Paradise Lost, but for now, I will knock out some of the “smaller” stuff before attacking yet another door-stop of a book.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Required Poet: Emily Dickinson

Turns out that Emily Dickinson wrote close to 1800 poems, despite the fact that only 12 or so of them were published while she was alive. And the good news is that for the purposes of the M.A. exam, we only have to read and be able to discuss nine of them.


Clearly we are dealing with poetry here, and because Dickinson's poetry contained such a wide array of themes, it cannot be confined into one specific genre. She has been grouped with the transcendentalists (think Emerson and Thoreau) who believe that there is an ideal spirituality that transcends the physical and can only be realized through intuition rather than the doctrines of established religions. Some critics disagree with this label as it applies to Dickinson; basically her thinking seems to go beyond transcendentalism and trying to gain spirituality by intuition. I did not know the woman, and know very little about her work, so I could not offer an opinion either way. I am sure there are very convincing arguments for both, but for now, I am not going to go with any specific genre and will just move on to themes.


Since I am attempting to eventually read all 1700+ poems of hers, so far the main themes I have noticed are bees, birds, death, religion, flowers, and immortality. Bees, birds, flowers, and other garden images are often emblematic of actions and emotions. Sometimes the "garden" is stated to be Eden, thus tying in her thoughts on religion. Death and mortality show up quite often and reflect her early and lifelong fascination with dying and death by various means which are themselves often reinforced by images of thirst and starvation. This will be discussed more when I talk about poem 280 “I felt a Funeral, in my Brain.”

Dickinson wrote many poems about the teachings of Jesus Christ and many are even addressed to him. Because of this, some critics want to place Dickinson in the poetic tradition of Christian devotion. She also stresses the Gospels' contemporary application with the use of wit and contemporary language.

Of course there are other themes in Dickinson's poems such as humor, puns, irony, and satire. And I could not possibly publish this post without also looking at her unusual use deployment of syntax and structure. The collection pictured above is a highly recommended collection for those that are interested in reading Dickinson with most of her original syntax. She used dashes extensively and seemed to capitalize whenever she pleased. She does not use pentameter but often goes more for trimeter, tetrameter, and even dimeter, but not regularly. Through the use of ballad stanza (ABCB) lines two and form will often rhyme, or maybe even just barely rhyme (slant rhyme), or not rhyme at all. And because of the use of ballad stanza, many of her poems can be sung to the melodies of popular hymns and folk songs such as "Amazing Grace" and "O Little Town of Bethlehem." Fascinating stuff.


Dickinson's poems tend to fall into three distinct periods: Pre-1861(conventional and sentimental), 1861-1865 (vigorous and emotional with fully developed themes of life and death), and post-1866 (it is estimated that two-thirds of her work was written before this year).

She was an admirer of Emerson, not so much of Whitman's (which is really interesting since they share an item number on the M.A. exam reading list) and was also influenced by Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre and Shakespeare.

The surge if posthumous publication is what gave Dickinson's poetry its first public exposure and it initially received mixed reviews. Her poetry started to gain more interest starting in the early 20th century and critics considered her to be essentially modern.

And now, I will attempt to explorer the nine specific poems chose for the M.A. exam. Thankfully, Dickinson was a fan of keeping it short and for the most part, also kind of fun...kind of. And once again I am going to stress that when it comes to poetry I have absolutely no clue what I am doing. So read the following interpretations at your own risk. You have been warned…

“Why – do they shut Me out of Heaven?” (248)

This one has a theme of general acceptance. Also, the word “bird” shows up in the first stanza, an image I have found Dickinson uses quite a bit. The speaker is insisting that if allowed into heaven, after apparently already having been shut out, that she won’t intrude, she won’t interrupt, and she won’t trouble them. Also, she insists that if she were on the other side of the door, she would not refuse the ones who have refused her.

“Over the fence – “ (251)

More garden imagery here, although for some reason that I cannot figure out she mentions strawberries specifically and uses their red color for the stain on her apron in the second stanza, without actually using the word “red.” The garden here seems to represent some kind of fantasy place that, although it seems the speaker made it up, is still fenced off. Also, God makes an appearance, at first as a disciplinarian, and then as a boy who would also have to climb the fence. Interesting…but I can’t for the life of me explain why.

“I felt a Funeral, in my Brain” (280)

This the first poem we have looked at that ends with a dash. Dickinson uses this device A LOT and it always feels to me like she is purposely leaving the poem without a sense of closure, as if it could go on. It portrays Dickinson’s fixation with death, and the funeral she speaks of seems to inside her trying to break out. Also, there is a linking between the funeral and reason in the first stanza, as if that is what is being carried through her by the funeral procession, and not a dead body. In the end, a “plank of reason” breaks and the narrator “dropped down” only to hit the World, and then it ends…it even ends with the word “then” with a dash following it. No clue what to make of that.

“Some keep the Sabbath going to church – “ (324)

This is one of the poems that make me see why people would see Dickinson as a Transcendentalist. Dickinson explores the difference between those who participate in organize religion regularly by going to a building, and those who “keep the Sabbath” all of the time on their own, without going to church, by keeping the divine always on their minds and worshipping on their own. The last two lines explain it the best for me, “So instead of getting to Heaven, at last -/ I’m going, all along.”

“After great pain a formal feeling comes – “ (341)

This one also ends with a dash, and explores Dickinson’s obsession with death and the process of dying. The very last line involves the final “letting go,” while most of the poem that precedes it goes through what I assume to be the final moments of someone’s life before succumbing to whatever it is that kills them. There are words like “nerves,” “stiff heart,” and “chill.”

“Much Madness is divinest Sense” (435)

Also ends with a dash, and has a great example of the slant rhyme that Dickinson seemed to so enjoy using. Line two ends with “eye,” while line four ends with “majority.” They don’t necessarily rhyme, but when the first stanza is read all together, it just seems to make sense to read the “y” in “majority” with the long “i” sound instead of the long “e.” And out of all of the poems of Dickinson’s on this list, this is my favorite because of the idea of “madness” being “divinest sense.” Also, the title line can also add to the argument for Dickinson being a Transcendentalist as it involves thinking being the way to go. Madness is not only sense, but divine sense, and regular sense is the “starkest madness.”

“I was the slightest in the House –“ (486)

Much like poem 248, this one has a slight theme of acceptance and also how the narrator insists that she would not take up much space or make much noise, and even that she “never spoke – unless addressed.” But because she is so “slight” and because she took up so little space, by her own effort mostly, in the last line the speaker remarks “How noteless – I could die.” So again, we get more death, but not the usual full-on exploration we get in a lot of her other poems that deal with death.

“The shut me up in Prose – “ (613)

Another ending with a dash, and another mention of a bird. This poem deals with other’s attempt (I guess) to discourage Dickinson from writing poetry. The narrator says it is like when she was put in a closet as a little girl because they liked her “still,” and she further likens it to someone placing a bird in a pound on grounds of treason. I guess the idea is that birds are meant to fly and have no place in a pound, just like she had not place in a closet as a little girl, and Dickinson had no place in prose.

“I dwell in Possibility –“ (657)

Dickinson again takes on the subject of Prose as “possibility” is a makes for a better house. Possibility becomes another one of Dickinson’s fantasy realms, except this time she has full control over it – she gives it numerous windows, great doors, only has the best guests, and in it, she has the ability to “gather Paradise;” and not just any paradise, but the capital “p” paradise. If poetry could allow me to do such a thing, I guess I would reject prose for it too…

That actually went much better than I thought it would. Seriously, I didn’t break out in tears of frustration once. Although next week I probably will as I am taking on Walt Whitman. That’s right, Mr. Leaves of Grass himself. I guarantee it will be painful.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Optional Work: The Age of Innocence

This novel surprised me. I honestly did not know what to expect and kind of took a shot in the dark by choosing this book. This book’s only quality that recommended itself to me was that it was not poetry. And it worked! I enjoyed it a great deal and am glad I chose it as one of my optional choices.


Hands down social commentary and satire – that is what I am going with. I find it interesting that Wikipedia says that Edith Wharton wrote this book as an apology for what apparently was a much harsher book, The House of Mirth. I have not read The House of Mirth, but it must be downright brutal because this book is dripping with irony and sarcasm as it details all of the habits and manners of the New York upper-crust. The book never comes right out and just condemns the social institution. In fact, it just politely describes it. But the descriptions are just so ridiculous and the characters are so catty and petty that there is no way the reader can take the descriptions seriously and think that the narrator is presenting these people as an ideal. And the main character, Newland Archer, is arguably one of the worst ones. He wants to badly escape a marriage that, by the way, he rushed into while his wife wanted to have a long engagement, and he constantly wishes to both be and prove that he is different from those around him. And one means by which he would prove that is if he were to run off with the mysterious yet often controversial Countess Ellen Olenska, even though his current relationship with her has already made him like so many of the men that he (and more than a few others) criticizes. The book is definitely a comment on the “Golden Age” of old New York.


As already mentioned under genre, a prominent theme is the fa├žade of the upper class of the New York society. The book comes just short of making an outright mockery of all of their manners, customs, habits, and values. One such habit that will forever stay in my mind as one of the most humorous moments in literary history is when in a group conversation consisting of both men and women, the upper-elite discuss the proper etiquette for a woman when wearing new clothes. Apparently, in old New York the custom was for a woman to buy the latest fashions in Paris, and then come back home with them only to let them sit in her closet for at least two years before she wore them out. Certain members of the conversation were just absolutely appalled that some had decided to wear their clothes even a year sooner to that. And then there were the ones who, horror of horrors, would wear them immediately. The idea was that a woman was not to appear too ahead of the trends. Another value I found intriguing came up when one of the better families, the Beauforts, had come into financial trouble when the husband is found out to be a fraud. While everyone is unashamedly condemning him and judging him at every turn, they hate to lose his company and his house as he and his wife were like the social directors of the crew. Basically, now that they no longer had their wealth and their standing in society, their “friends” now needed a new place to party.

Another prominent issue in the novel is that of marriage and infidelity. At least two of the elite male characters are known and despised for their reputations of having mistresses while being married (Beaufort being one of them), yet they are still invited to all of the social gatherings. Also, one of the main conflicts in the novel is the subject of Ellen Olenska’s divorce to her husband who is still back in Europe. The popular opinion is that she should go back to him and not seek a divorce, mostly because the scandal would just be too great. The only two people who seem earnest in not having her do it are Newland and the Countess’ grandmother. But Newland is against it only because he wants her for himself, despite the fact the he is also married. The novel goes back and forth with Newland and Ellen professing their love for each other, but then realizing that is cannot be. And right when Newland decides that he will leave his wife (spoiler alert!) it is revealed that Ellen will move back to Europe to live and still obtain a divorce from her husband. Maybe I’m just not that romantic, but I for one am glad they did not end up together. I just cannot root for a man who is married to a perfectly fine wife but wants to run away with her cousin because she is new and exciting and mysterious. It also does not help that he condemns Beaufort for the exact same thing he is attempting to do.

One last thing that comes up periodically throughout the book is the comparisons between New York and London and Paris. Two key observations that stick out: one is that there is no point in people having immigrated to the New World searching for freedom only to make the new country exactly like the old one. The second observation is that people, on both sides, never completely understand the customs of the other. We go to other countries, see how people on the other side of the world do things, and then we go back and tell our friends about it only to get almost everything completely wrong. We don’t intend to really, we just don’t understand as much as we would like to believe we do.


Wharton lived in this world of 19th century East Coast America and saw its dramatic change by the end of World War I…to be fair though, something that big would dramatically change anything. The title is most certainly ironic as none of these people are innocent. Sure, they can pretend to be on the outside quite easily, but it is only hiding the manipulations they are attempting to pull off on the inside. The book could also be called a panorama as it gives a broad view on old New York upper-society in general and all of its intricate operations.

Okay, I have avoided it as much as I possibly could, but next week I must work on some poetry. I will most likely attack Emily Dickinson for next week, and then I’ll move on to Walt Whitman the following week, since they share a spot on the M.A. exam list. Fortunately, Dickinson’s poems are incredibly short…but that doesn’t mean I’ll understand them any better.