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.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Required Poet: T.S. Eliot

Are you ready for some confusion? But don’t worry, this is the fun kind of confusion. Ever have fun getting lost? Yeah, me neither, but T.S. Eliot makes it fun for some reason, although The Waste Land is not exactly a happy poem. And while The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock is not exactly cheery, it is a bit more light-hearted as it follows the thought process of a nervous fellow trying desperately to communicate his feelings. And then we also have Eliot’s “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” which is his essay on the relationship between the poet and the literary tradition that preceded him.


In general, T.S. Eliot was a modernist…but what does that mean? Well, from a broad and non-specific sense, modernists rejected the conservative values of realism. They also rejected tradition, and also the all-powerful Creator God for a more abstract and unconventional ethic initiated by changing technology and the awful consequences of World War I. In short, they felt “traditional” forms of, well, everything, were feeling a bit “outdated.”

When it comes to Eliot’s specific poems, Love Song is more of a dramatic monologue of sorts (think Hamlet) spoken by way of stream of consciousness (think Hamlet if he were a character in Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury *shudder*). I found this poem to be surprisingly enjoyable despite the frustrating patterns and lines (which I am guessing is supposed to suggest the frustration of Prufrock), and the sense of desperation that is felt through the speaker. Even more surprising, however, is how much I enjoyed The Waste Land, and you want to talk frustrating lines and patterns…yikes. It’s obscure, it references a billion different things (and the notes sometimes hinder more than help), and it does probably the one thing that frustrates me the most in any piece of writing: is switches the narrative voice as well as the location and time without notifying the reader. And as it changes voice, it also switches between satire, prophecy, and even languages. There are bits of dramatic monologue in there too, but again, it switches from monologue, to dialogue, and then even to a group of people speaking. And the idea of it having elements of prophecy in it creeps me out a little since it was written after WWI. I probably shouldn’t find that unsettling, but I do.

“Tradition and the Individual Talent” is much more straight-forward (although it still has its cryptic moments too) in that it is a critical essay Eliot wrote as a contribution to literary theory. In this way he was much like Sir Philip Sidney and Samuel Taylor Coleridge as they also acted as poet-critics.


What I get from both Love Song and The Waste Land is a general sense of what is lost and what will be if action isn’t taken. Prufrock seems to lament and regret the lost of past opportunities (and possibly the future ones he also realizes he won’t be able to grasp). He struggles over what to say and his ability to say it before it is too late. The style makes it difficult to clearly state what is literal and what is symbolic, but generally speaking, I am going to go with the interpretation that the poem is about a sexually-frustrated man who wants (or even needs) to say something but is afraid, and ultimately says nothing…and immediately regrets it. And the stream of consciousness style helps convey the internal struggle and the thought process of someone who wants desperately to express themselves but fear is the ultimate barrier in stopping them.

In The Waste Land, for me the sense of loss mostly comes from the fact that it was written after WWI and apparently during a period of personal difficulty for Eliot. Critics have often read the poem as a representation of the feelings of the post-war generation. And apparently, those feelings were mostly of disillusionment and despair and loss. And really, it is all in the title.

Of course, both poems also share their disjointed structure, although The Waste Land is much more fractured and hard to follow. With Love Song I always had a good idea of what was going on. With The Waste Land, as soon as I felt I had a handle on things I would lose it, or probably more accurately, it was taken away from me. And the only indication of any type of approaching change that the reader is given comes from the fact that the poem is divided into five parts. But again, much like with Love Song, the disjointed nature of The Waste Land could be indicative of Eliot’s feelings at the time.

For “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” it seems that the short version of it is this: Eliot feels that while acknowledging the traditions of the poets that came before, the individual should not submit to their ways of doing things completely and therefore give up novelty and talent for an older more accepted way. He then takes it upon himself to establish sort of an official tradition by picking particular works as the “canon” for that tradition, and therefore brings much criticism upon himself.


Eliot was actually born in America but become a citizen of England at the age of 39. Interestingly enough, he also converted to Anglicanism from Unitarianism earlier that same year. This was seven years after the publication of The Waste Land, and 12 years after the publication of Love Song. Eliot most likely worked on The Waste Land for several years before it was published. It is believed that some of the work he did on it was done during what was supposed to be a resting period for both him and his wife. Eliot had been diagnosed with some form of a nervous disorder, and officially, he took leave from work for a nervous breakdown. There were also apparently several drafts of the poem made as well as a few title choices before Eliot settled for The Waste Land.

Oddly enough, Eliot strongly influenced the school of New Criticism, even though he would later criticize the New Critics for their ridiculously detailed analysis of the text. But he does share with them the desire to look at the stylistic qualities of a poem rather than its ideology. New Critics also prefer to look at a work in the context of the writers previous work.

Normally, this is when I would go into each poem individually, but I really can’t think of any more to say that I haven’t already put down here. Overall, all three of these were a good experience for me. Next week I will deal with Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, although the post may be a bit late as I am once again attending the Austin City Limits Music Festival. Fortunately I have already read the bulk of what is required for the test, so hopefully a post will go up by Monday the 19th.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Required Poet: Alexander Pope

I can’t even think of any sort of witty or snarky remarks about this stuff. Poetry is just so hard for me anyway, and then these four poems just seemed to go and on forever. And the longer the poem went on the more confused I got. Let’s just get this over with.


Alexander Pope was known for his satirical verse and his use of the heroic couplet, which was a relatively new genre of poetry during his time. The heroic couplet is commonly used in narrative poetry (poetry with a plot) and epic poetry (which is just long narrative poetry, so it fits right in here) constructed from rhyming pairs of iambic pentameter lines. All four of the poems from Pope that made it on the list are constructed in this way. For example:

‘Tis hard to say, if greater want of skill
Appear in writing or in judging ill;
But, of the two, less dangerous is the offence
To tire our patience, than mislead our sense. (Opening lines of An Essay on Criticism)

Now, The Rape of the Lock is a mock-heroic narrative poem, which means it parodies the Classical stereotype of the hero in heroic literature. The title of the poem sounds much more serious than the story actually is. The only thing stolen or “raped” from the female in the story was a lock of hair. The poem could also be called high burlesque: it was created to cause laughter by caricaturing the manner of more serious works.


There isn’t going to be much more to add here that I haven’t already spoken of in genre. As I already mentioned, all four of the poems are written using the heroic couplet, and all four are also narrative or epic poems. They go on at length about a serious subject at the time (or they mock a serious subject as is the case with The Rape of the Lock).

In both of his Essays, Pope is seeking to almost argue a point or justify a case that he believes to be important to the society of his time. And while the Essays are like arguments or discussions, both The Rape of the Lock and Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot are satirical, although the later was written in the response to Pope learning that his friend was dying, so he wrote the poem in memory of their friendship. But even his Epistle ends up being an argument or discussion between “Atticus” and “Sporus” in which Pope defends his satirical work and actively attacks opponents and rivals. Only The Rape of the Lock (out of these four poems) appears to leave out the autobiographical, although it was based on a real event that Pope heard of through his friend, John Caryll.


Around 1711 Pope became a part of the same friendship circle as Jonathan Swift (Gulliver’s Travels), known as the Scriblerus Club. The aim of the group was to satirize ignorance.

Pope was a Catholic, which of course caused him to be somewhat removed from society. However, his health was another factor that kept him alienated. Because of tuberculosis, he grew to a height of only 4 ft. 6 in. and had a sever hunchback. He died at age 56 after receiving the Last Rites from a Priest the day before.

Pope also translated both the Iliad and the Odyssey. He also produced a new edition of Shakespeare’s work, although this would cause him to be criticized as he would remove over 11500 of Shakespeare’s lines and put them in the footnotes as he could not believe Shakespeare wrote them because they we “excessively bad.”

And now, I will give a little snippet about each poem:

An Essay on Criticism

This poem was initially published anonymously and took three years to finish. The poem was a response the question of whether poetry should be written as the poet feels, or have pre-set rules taken from the poems of the past. Pope discusses both the rules that govern poetry (and the classical authors that dealt with such rules) and also the rules that a critic should follow when passing judgment on someone’s poetry. The discussion end with Pope asserting that the ideal critic (according to the standards he presents) is also the ideal man. Pope was also using this work out his own position as poet and critic.

Rape of the Lock

Pope’s friend, John Caryll, told him the story of Arabella Fermor and Lord Petre who cut off a lock of Arabella’s hair without her permission, and the consequent argument cause a split between the two families. Pope proceeds to mock both the real story and the heroic tradition.

Essay on Man

For me, this was by far the most tedious one of the four, and not surprisingly, it is also the longest. It is a philosophical poem in which Pope attempts to “vindicate the ways of God to Man” (a variation of John Milton’s attempt to “justify the ways of God to Man” in Paradise Lost). The poem may not be exclusively Christian, but the bottom line is that man has fallen and must seek salvation. The four epistles that are addressed to Lord Bolingbroke assert that the universe is a perfect work of God, and man sees it as imperfect and evil only because of our limited view and intelligence; therefore, we need faith.

An Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot

As I mentioned earlier, Pope wrote this in memorial to his friendship with Dr. Arbuthnot upon learning that he is dying. John Arbuthnot was also part of the Scriblerus Club and was a former physician to Queen Anne. The two speakers, Atticus and Sporus, represent Joseph Addison and John Hervey. Addison is depicted as having great talent that is wasted because of fear and jealousy, while Hervey is sexually perverse, malicious, absurd, and dangerous. I have to say I do love the idea of calling effectively calling out your enemies through satire.

We’ll be sticking with poetry for awhile now, so next week I’ll keep on moving with T.S. Eliot, which, I am happy to say, I think I’ll be able to draw much more out of than I was today with Pope.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Optional Linguistics: African American Women's Language

This post is going to be a little bit odd because I am not going over a novel or a poem or a short story or even a non-fiction story. Sonja Lanehart’s African American Women’s Language: Discourse, Education, and Identity, is a collection of research done on the language of African American women (AAWL). Most research done on the language of African Americans (AAL) has focused on the language of the males and largely ignored the females. So Dr. Lanehart decided to focus her book specifically on African American females by pulling from her own research and the research of other prominent leaders in the field as well as some of her own students. A few of the names I even recognized from my time here at UTSA. I will have to qualify this by saying that I really don’t get linguistics. The politics and the terminology are usually way over my head and it has never been something I was generally interested in. With that said, there were parts I thoroughly enjoyed, but there were many more parts that I couldn’t possibly explain to anyone what they are supposed to be about.


There really isn’t much to say here for this book. It is linguistics research with each chapter coming from a different contributor. There are four different parts that each deal with a different subject area, and even each article or chapter is different in what it deals with specifically. Some chapters will focus on a specific book or movie, others focus on a specific region and type of AAWL (the chapter on Barbados was incredibly fascinating to me), while others are case studies that focus on a specific set of people with the research done through interviews and observation.


The themes of the research typically depend on the section. Part I deals with Language and Identity, which focuses largely on how black women are perceived and therefore portrayed through language. Also, this section focuses on how the language and the perceptions of others help shape how black women, especially young girls, perceive and view themselves and their own interactions. What I generally gained from it was that among other black people, these young black girls that were observed are smart, confident, and self-assured young women. But once they enter into an environment that is more integrated, they all of a sudden have an “attitude.” Interesting stuff.

Part II was about Discourse, Grammar, and Variation, and it was also the section I got the most lost in. I am just not used to the scientific-sounding terminology, and while I liked the charts and graphs that were included in a lot of the chapters, I really couldn’t make much sense of them. Part II focused on the specific details about AAWL that make it different from not only Standard English, but also the dominant AAL that is spoken by black males. Much like the first section, case studies are used that focus on a specific set of girls or women.

The third section starts to explore how black women are portrayed in Film and Literature. Now, this is the stuff that to me gets a little tricky, only because I feel like anyone can make almost any little thing in a book or movie represent what they want to fit their cause. Not that every single chapter doesn’t make some fantastic points. Black females in popular culture are often, according to some of the chapters, portrayed as jezebels, mammies (think Gone with the Wind), and/or just loud and obnoxious with a castrating effect on black men. Some movies that are mentioned are the Oscar winning Crash, Gone with the Wind, and even The Matrix.

The final section takes on the issues of Performance and Community. The chapters here include a case study on an African American owned beauty school that focused on hair care for black women, the language of black women in the church, and the performances and music of Erykah Badu and Beyonce. This is probably the section I found the easiest to understand, but also the section I found to be the most random, if that makes sense. Even so, I enjoyed the focus on how black women operate in relation to each other and when performing for a wide audience. The juxtaposition of Erykah Badu and Beyonce was a great way to end the book.


As I already mentioned, black women have been largely omitted from the research done pertaining to AAL; therefore, it was necessary for there to be a focus on AAWL, which has proven to be different from its counterpart in a few ways. Also, while there has been research into the language and speech of women in America in general, African American women have been largely left out of that research as well. The issue is similar to that of the fight for the right to vote. Black women were left out of the fight for black men to vote, and the right for women to vote focused mostly on white women. With both issues, black women have had a difficult time figuring out exactly whose jurisdiction they fall under, leaving them to kind of create their own.

In the spring of 2008 Dr. Lanehart held a conference on African American Women’s Language and also taught a course at UTSA on the subject. That of course fed into the book, which was published in 2009. It is one of only a few books out there that focus specifically on the language of black women. But I am sure more will follow in the coming years.

I am already dreading the next post because it will deal with the poetry of Alexander Pope. I am a little more than half-way done reading what is required, but I am already thoroughly annoyed…