Brooks breaks the subtitle into two parts, both of which are subjects without predicates. She does not, for instance, write what would be a more economic alternative, Seven Pool Players at the Golden Shovel, even though economy is a hallmark of this poem. A possible explanation is that Brooks’s fragments allow a reading of the word “seven” as both “seven pool players” and as a lucky number. With the latter possibility, the number is ironic since, by the end of this poem, the pool players reveal that they are not lucky at all. The players are at a pool parlor called the Golden Shovel. The name initially suggests good fortune (“digging for gold”), but by the end of the poem, it implies a negative connotation as an implement used for digging graves. Lines 1-2
The first line is the only one with “We” at the beginning and the end. Contrast this with the last line, which contains no pronoun. Perhaps with the poem’s opening, then, the pool players’ identity is at its strongest, but wanes until its weakest point — the end. “Real cool” and “left school” are more sonically dissimilar within each pair than the other paired words of the poem, such as “thin gin,” except for the last line’s “die soon.” Still, “real cool” and “left school” do link up with the use of the recurring “l” sound. “Die” and “soon,” however, have only one similarity: as is true for all of the words in the poem, they are monosyllabic. With one exception, the word “We” is enjambed, or placed at the end of the previous line with which it does not semantically belong, instead of being placed with the line it does belong with, the one that follows. The technique forces the reader to hesitate after each “We.” Brooks has remarked that the hesitation, coupled with her choice of a quiet uttering of “We,” signals a weak sense of the pool players’ identity. In fact, so weak is this identity that these pool players, while almost always thought to be black males — perhaps because the poet is black and it is boys who usually hang out in pool parlors — could be white males or even females. Lines 3-4
Alliteration of “l” and “str” sounds mark these two lines. The words “Lurk” and “Strike” both have sinister connotations; lurking involves hiding and watching, possibly with an evil intent, while strike suggests an assault. But “Lurk” might mean little more than to hide out in the pool parlor, and “Strike straight” may refer to playing pool well or to “telling it like it is.” Lines 5-6
To “Sing sin” probably means to proclaim sin as morally fitting or good — or at least pleasurable.
“Thin gin” refers to drinking gin with a mixer such as ginger ale or tonic water, the point simply being that these pool players drink hard liquor. “Sing” and “sin” alliterate but “Thin” and “gin” rhyme. Lines 7-8
“Jazz June” can have several readings. “Jazz” here is a verb and could mean to have sex, or a good time, with a woman named June. “Jazz June” could also mean have a good time in the month of June. Finally, these pool players might listen to or play jazz. During the 1950s, the time this poem was written, cool was the prevalent form of jazz, a music of intricate harmonies and subdued dynamics. By the last line of the poem, it is not exactly certain whether the players are bragging or noticing a profound problem with their way of life. Themes
Appearance Vs. Reality Most assessments about the pool players in “We Real Cool” fall somewhere between the following two extremes: the players are cool or they are worthy of pity. The players are arguably cool because they had the nerve to drop out of school, perhaps have refused to work, because they drink (and might be underage), and because they engage in activities that are frowned upon or forbidden. In addition, and perhaps most important, the players are cool because they are fearless — unafraid of telling the truth (they are “straight shooters”) and facing the dangers that those who “sing sin” could encounter. If we accept this evaluation, the poem functions as a boast all the way through its last line, making the players cooler still. Conversely, these players can be viewed as deserving pity because they seem to be trying to boost their self-esteem by placing high value on meaningless activities. There is the sense that they are trying to forget their socioeconomic circumstances by drinking and playing games. In this way, they embrace the attitudes and activities that will only compound their plight. They have given up on means of advancement, such as education. Dying soon would not so much be tragic, but a way of escaping a harsh reality.
These are the extremes of perception — of appearance — that the pool players would have to struggle with and could not help but internalize. Their response might be to “shoot straight”: to those to whom they appear romantically rebellious, they might say that theirs is actually a life of confusion, fear, anger, and alienation. “We Real Cool,” then, is a cautionary tale for those who would think them cool. But to those who would condemn them, the players’ response might again be to shoot straight: “At least we haven’t been suckered into buying into a system that may not even reward us if we work hard and follow the rules.” In this case, “We Real Cool” is a defiant response to those who would condemn them out of hand and who unthinkingly accept the status quo. Free Will and Chance
The last statement of this poem, “We / Die soon,” raises the question of whether these pool players have any control over their lives or if they are simply characters who will succumb to a predetermined fate. People often refer to “the luck of the draw” to describe a situation that is the result of chance; in this case, the pool players were born into a set of circumstances over which they had no control. Because they are not adults, they have no way of affecting their socioeconomic status. The players, however, show free will in that they choose to skip school, “Lurk late,” and “Sing sin.” Free will involves taking responsibility for one’s own action, and by making what many would see as negative choices — foregoing education and instead playing — they effectively have decided give up on their future and risk their safety by hanging around dangerous people and areas. Someone with a fatalistic viewpoint, though, would argue that it wouldn’t matter what choices the players made — any path they took would lead to the same place. This, then, is the difficult problem this poem tries to solve: to keep the reader from simply pronouncing the pool players either guilty (with free will) or innocent (subject to fate or chance). Style
The monosyllabic words and quick lines of “We Real Cool” suggest the jabbing of pool cues and the short, fast life of the pool players. The poem is made up of four, two-line stanzas, each of which is end-rhymed. The lines also internally rhyme (“Thin gin”) or alliterate (“Strike straight”). The “We” at the end of each line is not for the purpose of rhyme, but rhythm. Normally, the voice continues on or falls at the end of a line. In this poem, however, the voice falls just before the end and then rises, yielding an unusual accented syllable at the end of each line — except for the last. This is due to the repeated foot throughout the poem, the rather unusual dactyl, a three-syllable foot with the first syllable accented and the following two unaccented. A dactyl yields a falling rhythm that is evident in the poem’s first three syllables: “We real cool.” Afterward, however, the dactyl foot is broken between the two lines of each stanza, with the accented “We” being placed on the line before. This unusual distribution suggests waltz rhythm or, if one pauses after “We,” jazz syncopation — a shifting of accents to unusual positions. The rhythm of the poem suggests a burst of bravado that quickly peters out, as if the pool players boldly proclaim who they are but cannot maintain that elevated status
Lines 1 – 2
Readers of poetry often get confused because they stop when they reach the end of a line, even if there is no mark of punctuation there. This could be the case with this poem, which opens with an enjambed line, a line that does not end with a mark of punctuation. The word enjambment comes from the French word for leg, “jamb”; a line is enjambed when it runs over (using its “legs”) to the next line without a pause. If read by itself, the first line becomes confusing because the reader can only see a dark image, almost a blank image. If “she walks in beauty, like the night,” a reader might wonder how she can be seen. But the line continues: the night is a cloudless one and the stars are bright. So immediately the poem brings together its two opposing forces that will be at work, darkness and light. Lines 3 – 4
These lines work well because they employ an enjambed line as well as a metrical substitution — a momentary change in the regular meter of the poem. When poets enjamb a line and use a metrical substitution at the beginning of the next line, they are calling attention to something that is a key to a poem. Here Byron substitutes atrochaic foot (an accented syllable followed by an unaccented one) for the iambic foot at the start of the fourth line. Why? Because he is putting particular emphasis on that word “meet.” He is emphasizing that the unique feature of this woman is her ability to contain opposites within her; “the best of dark and bright / meet” in her. In the same way that enjambment forces lines together, and a metrical substitution jars the reader somewhat, this woman joins together darkness and light, an unlikely pair. They “meet” in her, and perhaps nowhere else besides a starry night. It’s also important to note that the joining together can be seen in her “aspect,” or appearance, but also in her “eyes.” A reader might think of the eyes simply as a feature of beauty, but the eyes also have been associated in literature with the soul, or the internal aspect of the person: the eyes reveal the heart. Lines 5 – 6
The emphasized word “meet” is here again echoed with the initial “m” sound in “mellowed.” This woman joins together what is normally kept separate, but there is no violent yoking going on here; instead, the opposites meld together to form a mellowed, or softened, whole. By joining together the two opposing forces, she creates a “tender light,” not the gaudiness of daytime, but a gentler light that even “heaven” does not bestow on the day. If a reader were to think of night in terms of irrationality and day in terms of reason — as is implied by the term enlightenment — that would not be apt for this poem. Neither night nor day seem pleasing to the speaker; only the meeting of those two extremes in this woman pleases him. She is a composite, neither wholly held by rationality nor by irrationality. Lines 7 – 10
Once again the opposites are combined here. “Shade” or darkness is combined with “day” or light, and “raven tress” or dark hair is linked with a lightened face. The speaker suggests that if the woman contained within her and in her appearance either a little bit more of darkness or a little bit more of light, she would be “half impaired.” A reader might expect the speaker to say she would be totally ruined or impaired, but if things were not just in the right proportion, she’d be half impaired, but still half magnificent. A key word in this section is “grace.” Although the poet is seemingly talking about appearances, in actuality he is referring to the “nameless grace” that is in her hair and face. Once again, it is something internal as well as external that is so attractive about this woman. Lines 11 – 12
Although this poem begins with the image of a woman walking, the reader should notice by now that no images are given of her legs or arms or feet; this is a head poem, confined to hair and eyes and face and cheeks and brows. The conclusion to the second stanza emphasizes this. The reader is given an insight into the “dwelling place” of the woman’s thoughts, an insight into her mind. The repetition of the “s” sounds is soothing in the phrase “serenely sweet express”; because the poet is referring to her thoughts, and her thoughts are nothing but serene, readers may infer how pure her mind is. Lines 13 – 18
Byron concludes the poem with three lines of physical description that lead to the final three lines of moral characterization. The soft cheeks, the winning smile, the tints in the skin eloquently express not only physical beauty, but they attest to her morality. The physical beauty, the speaker concludes, reflects days spent doing good, a mind at peace, and “a heart whose love is innocent.” Whether Byron would have preferred a less innocent cousin, someone with whom he could enjoy Byronic passions, is left unspoken for the reader to decipher. Themes
Lord Byron’s poem “She Walks in Beauty” was written in praise of a beautiful woman. History holds that he wrote it for a female cousin, Mrs. Wilmot, whom he ran into at a party in London one night when she was in mourning, wearing a black dress with glittering sequins. The poem uses images of light and darkness interacting to describe the wide spectrum of elements in a beautiful woman’s personality and looks.
Unlike common love poetry, which makes the claim that its subject is filled with beauty, this poem describes its subject as being possessed by beauty. This woman does have beauty within her, but it is to such a great degree that she is actually surrounded by it, like an aura. To some extent, her positive attributes create her beauty, and so the poem makes a point of mentioning her goodness, her serenity, and her innocence, which all have a direct causal effect on her looks. There is, though, another element: the “nameless grace” that is a type of beauty bestowed by heaven, as in the common expression “she is graced by beauty.” The woman described in this poem is so completely beautiful, inside and out, that Byron goes out of his way to mention all of the various possible sources, to show that he appreciates her beauty to its fullest.
The beauty described here is a result of the woman being well-rounded, to such an extent that the second stanza notes how the very slightest difference — a shade or a ray — would alter her beauty drastically, cutting it in half. While a more conventional sense of beauty might list only the woman’s positive attributes, it is typical of Byron’s romantic sensibilities to see beauty as a mixture of light and darkness, admitting that the sinister, mysterious darkness of night has as much to do with a woman’s appeal as the positive aspects associated with light. Pure light, according to this vision, is so limited in its relation to beauty as to be “gaudy.” Harmony
In this poem, Byron balances light and dark within the personality of one beautiful woman. If any two concepts can be recognized as being mutually exclusive, it would be these; light does not exist where there is darkness, and darkness does not exist in light, even though they can exist next to one another, with darkness taking up where light ends and vice versa. In some cases, the two are thought of as struggling against one another, but in the case of a beautiful woman, as Byron explains it here, light and dark can exist together, at the same time, in harmony.
Harmony is more than different things existing together. In music, which is where the word is most often used, it refers to a special, third tone that occurs when two tones work together with each other and make a new, pleasing sound. Similarly, Byron implies in “She Walks in Beauty” that the convergence of light and dark within this woman creates a new thing that is greater than the sum of the two. The darkness of her “raven tresses” and the lightness of her skin do not contrast with each other, they create a well-rounded whole that is great enough to hold contrasting elements.
Flesh Versus Spirit
This poem raises the issue of the mind-body duality that has concerned philosophers for centuries. The most puzzling thing about this concept is the fact that the mind, or spirit, is definitely not a physical thing that anyone would ever be able to point to, but it definitely responds to changes in the body. Even today, when science can identify electrochemical reactions in the brain that seem to be direct responses to physical stimulation, there is no clear way of showing how what happens in the brain translates into the immaterial world of thoughts.
The version of the mind-body duality that Byron presents in this poem is the opposite of the one that measures neural reactions. To him, the woman’s beauty originates in her thoughts, and the innocence and purity of her mind manifest themselves on her face, to create the beauty that he sees there. The third stanza states this process directly. The first three lines of this stanza catalog the parts of the woman’s face that the poet finds beautiful, listing her cheek and brow, her smile, and her complexion. In the last three lines, the cause of this beauty is linked to what goes on inside of her mind. It is her goodness, her peacefulness, her love and innocence that are all “told of” in the woman’s features. Because of the fact that this romantic view of love has prevailed throughout Western society, modern readers often fail to appreciate the fact that beauty does not necessarily have to be caused by purity of spirit. Byron’s poem claims that the woman’s virtues are the cause of her external beauty, but there is no real proof of any link between the spirit and the flesh. Perfection
There are several places that “She Walks in Beauty” implies that it is giving an image of womanly perfection. In line 3, for instance, the poem describes how this woman’s eyes contain “all that’s best of dark and bright.” Lines 7 – 8 explain that the slightest variance of light or dark would cut in half the indescribable grace that gives her the great beauty she wears. As Byron describes this woman, there is nothing that could be better about her and much that could be lost if things were not exactly as they are. All elements about her must be kept in exactly the present proportions for her beauty to remain. This is perfection.
Because the poem draws a connection between the woman’s finely-balanced features and her personality, readers can assume that this woman is not only perfect in her looks, but in her personality as well. She is perfect through-and-through. It is fitting for a romantic expression of love that Byron’s claims about her should be so extreme as to say that she is not just good, not great, but perfect. In poetry, the device of overstating things with great exaggeration is called hyperbole. Lovers often make such exaggerated claims about those who are the objects of their affections, driven by the excitement of their emotions. It is typical of Byron to casually shower such praise on a woman with whom he had no direct romantic involvement at all. Style
The three six-line stanzas of this poem all follow the same rhyme scheme and the same metrical pattern. There are only six rhyming sounds in this eighteen-line poem because the poem rhymes ababab, cdcdcd, efefef. The pairing of two rhyming sounds in each stanza works well because the poem concerns itself with the two forces — darkness and light — at work in the woman’s beauty, and also the two areas of her beauty — the internal and the external. The rhyming words themselves, especially in the first stanza, have importance: notice how “night” rhymes with its opposites, “light” and “bright,” in the same way that this woman contains the two opposing forces in her particular type of beauty. Oftentimes poets use their poetic structures to mirror what the poem’s chief concerns are. Poetic form — stanzas and meter — and content — what the poem’s subject is — are almost always related.
The meter is also very regular — iambic tetrameter. This means there are four — “tetra” is Greek for four — iambs per line. An iamb means that the line is divided into units, or feet, of two syllables, and each unit has an unaccented syllable followed by an accented syllable. This can be clearly seen if you look closely at the construction of a particular line:
She walks/in beau/ty like/the night
ÔÑÍ ÞÕíÏÉ When We Two Parted When We Two Parted STRUCTURE
The poem is divided in four stanzas and each one in eight verses. The rhyme used by Byron follows this structure: abab cdcd efef ghgh ijij klkl mnmn kbkb.Separating each stanza in four verses, we have the rhyme more clear, each even verse and each odd verse rhyme with its equivalent even or odd verse. Thisstructure gives to the poem a lot of rythm, giving the sensation of musicality.
In this poem it is too difficult to find rhetorical figures, due to the most important of all the poem is the strength of the words. Despite of this, it can be seen,for example, in the third line a metaphor: “half broken-hearted”; the poet is expressing us how he and his lover feel when they are two parted.
Another striking thing found in the poem is the second part of the fourth stanza. It is the only stanza which repeats the rhyme of other verses and not just the rhyme, but the word itself. E.g. “(4) To sever for years/ (30)After long years”. If we pay attention, there is also a correspondence of meaning, in the first stanzaByron is telling they are going to sever for years and in the last stanza he is thinking of what he will do when they remeet. With the other two verses is the same, atthe first part: “(2)In silence and tears” is how they react when they are two parted, and in the last part of the poem: “(32)With silence and tears” is how he isgoing to have to greet her since they did not meet.
The poem, as I said before, is divided in four stanzas, and each stanza talks about different visions of this love separation.
On the whole, the poem is all the time giving the feeling of the pain that the poet has due to the separation of the two lovers; what we cannot know is ifthe separation is because of death or maybe because “she” split up with him.
In the first stanza the poet begins with the main topic, remembering the separation of the two lovers, how they felt: “half broken-hearted” , showing hispain. Also he expresses the idea of what we think that this separation is due to the death of his lover with the metaphor of : “Pale grew thy cheek andcold,/colder thy kiss”. All that sorrounds her is cold, and this cold is a perfect form to express the death in contrast with the warm involving the life.
Following with the poem, in the second stanza it can be found the relation of colder morning with the pain that the poet is feeling. Also another time wecan see that his lover is dead: “thy vows are all broken”. Then, it follow with the shame that feels the poet when he hears her name; maybe shame because theirrelation was a sin. This idea will be developed later with some comments of people that “she” was a married woman.
The third stanza contains strong vocabulary showing again that “she” is dead: “A knell to mine ear; A shudder comes o’er me”.These two verses remainto the sounds of the bells of a funeral, using the appropriated word “Knell”. Also he asked himself why he loved her so, and people who knew her well do not knowany relation between them. Maybe that people who knew her well could be her family and husband.
At the last stanza the poet is remembering when they met and transmits us a feeling of hope: “If I should meet thee”. Maybe life exists before death andthey can reopen their love, and the poet also tell us how they greet: “With silence and tears”.
Some researches say that the person who was addressed this poem is Lady Frances Webster (married woman) and a last stanza was left out to keep theidentity of the woman a secret. It was discover when Byron wrote a letter to his cousin Lady Hardy giving her of the last stanza:
Then --- fare thee well --- Fanny ---
Now doubly undone ---
To prove false unto many ---
As faithless to One ---
Thou art past all recalling
Even would I recall ---
For the woman once falling
Forever must fall.
ÔÑÍ ãÓÑÍíÉ The importance of being Earnest The Importance of Being Earnest
Oscar Wilde’s most successful play, The Importance of Being Earnest became an instant hit when it opened in London, England, in February, 1895, running for eighty-six performances. The play has remained popular with audiences ever since, vying with Wilde’s 1890 novel The Portrait of Dorian Gray as his most recognized work. The play proves vexing to critics, though, for it resists categorization, seeming to some merely a flimsy plot which serves as an excuse for Wilde’s witty epigrams (terse, often paradoxical, sayings or catch-phrases). To others it is a penetratingly humorous and insightful social comedy.
When Earnest opened, Wilde was already familiar to readers for Dorian Gray, as well as for collections of fairy tales, stories, and literary criticism. Theatre-goers knew him for his earlier dramatic works, including three previous successes, Lady Windermere’s Fan (1892), A Women of No Importance (1893), and An Ideal Husband (1895), as well as for his more controversial play, Salome (1896), which was banned in Britain for its racy (by nineteenth century standards) sexual content.
The Importance of Being Earnest has been favorably compared with William Shakespeare’s comedy Twelfth Night and Restoration plays like Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s School for Scandal and Oliver Goldsmith’s She Stoops to Conquer. While it is generally acknowledged that Wilde’s play owes a debt to these works, critics have contended that the playwright captures something unique about his era, reworking the late Victorian melodramas and stage romances to present a farcical, highly satiric work — though audiences generally appraise the play as simply great fun.
Tragically, as The Importance of Being Earnest, his fourth and most successful play, received acclaim in London, Wilde himself became embroiled in the legal actions against his homosexuality that would end his career and lead to imprisonment, bankruptcy, divorce, and exile. Plot Summary
The play opens in the fashionable London residence of Algernon Moncrieff. His friend Jack (who goes by the name “Earnest”) Worthing arrives, revealing his intention to propose matrimony to Algernon’s cousin Gwendolen Fairfax. In the course of their conversation, Jack admits that he is the ward to a young woman, Cecily Cardew. Also, he admits to leading a double life, stating that his “name is Earnest in town and Jack in the country.” In the country, he pretends to have a brother in London named Earnest whose wicked ways necessitate frequent trips to the city to rescue him.
Algernon’s aunt Lady Augusta Bracknell arrives with his cousin Gwendolen Fairfax. While Algernon and his aunt discuss the music for her next party, Jack — claiming his name is Earnest — confesses his love for Gwendolen and proposes marriage. She is delighted, because her “ideal has always been to love someone of the name Earnest.” When the lovers tell Lady Bracknell their news, she responds frostily, forbidding marriage outright after learning that while Jack has an occupation — he smokes — and money, he has no lineage to boast of — in fact, he has no knowledge of his real family at all. He was discovered as an infant, abandoned in a handbag in Victoria Station.
Because Cecily seems too interested in Jack’s imaginary brother, Earnest, Jack decides to “kill” him. Gwendolen informs Jack that while Lady Bracknell forbids their marriage and that she “may marry someone else, and marry often,” she will retain her “eternal devotion” to him.
July in the garden of Jack’s Manor House in Hertfordshire. Miss Prism, Cecily’s governess, chides her for not attending to her German lesson, as Jack has requested. Prism informs Cecily that when younger, she had written a novel. The Rector, Canon Frederick Chasuble enters, suggesting that a stroll in the garden may cure Miss Prism’s headache.
She feels fine but a headache develops soon after his suggestion, and they walk off together.
Algernon arrives, and, finding Cecily alone, introduces himself as Jack’s “wicked” city brother, Earnest. Cecily and Algernon (as Earnest) walk off. Prism and Chasuble return as Jack shows up unexpectedly. Hoping to end his double-life, Jack informs them that his brother Earnest has died in Paris of a “severe chill.” They console him, until Cecily enters with Earnest (Algernon), who seems very much alive. Jack is bewildered, but Cecily, thinking Jack’s coolness is resentment at his brother’s dissipated lifestyle, insists that the “brothers” mend their relationship.
Left alone, Algernon proposes to Cecily, only to discover that — according to Cecily — they have already been engaged for three months. It seems that since Cecily heard from Jack about his wicked brother, Earnest, she fell in love with him. She entered in her diary their entire romance, complete with proposal, acceptance, break-up, and reconciliation.
Gwendolen arrives and chats with Cecily, until both women realize they are engaged to a man named Earnest. When Algernon and Jack return, their true identities — and the fact that neither of them is actually named Earnest — are revealed. As the scene ends, both men admit to having arranged for Chasuble to re-christen them with the name Earnest.
Later the same day at the Manor house, Gwendolen and Cecily prepare to forgive the men, though they are disappointed that neither is named Earnest. Lady Bracknell arrives, in pursuit of Gwendolen. She learns from Jack that his ward Cecily is quite wealthy and therefore a desirable match for her nephew Algernon. When she hears of Miss Prism, Lady Bracknell recognizes her as a former family servant. Prism and Lady Bracknell’s infant nephew had disappeared at the same time under mysterious circumstances.
Miss Prism confesses that she had left the house with her novel manuscript in one hand and the baby in the other. In her confusion, however, she had put the book in the baby carriage and the baby in the handbag at the train station. The baby, Jack, turns out to be Lady Bracknell’s lost nephew and Algernon’s older brother. Lady Bracknell now gives her permission for Algernon to wed Cecily, but Jack, as Cecily’s guardian, refuses his permission unless Lady Bracknell consents to his marriage to Gwendolen. She does, and as the act closes, they learn that Jack was named after his father, General Earnest John Moncrieff — Earnest for short
Lady Augusta Bracknell
Algernon’s aunt and the sister of Jack’s mother. She opposes Jack’s marriage with her daughter Gwendolen, though relents when she learns that Jack is actually her nephew. More accurately, she wants Algernon to be able to marry the very wealthy Cecily, but that match cannot take place without Jack’s permission, which he refuses to give unless Lady Bracknell approves his marriage with Gwendolen. Overall, she is realistic, hard-nosed, and an upholder of convention — though not entirely conventional herself.
Jack’s pretty, young ward, whom Algernon woos but who remains determined to marry a man named Earnest. Not quite as naive as she may appear, Cecily keeps a diary, which “is simply a very young girl’s record of her own thoughts and impressions and consequently meant for publication.” Tutored by Miss Prism, Cecily fails to attend to her studies and marries Algernon at the play’s conclusion.
Canon Frederick Chasuble
Canon Chasuble is the rather foolish, pedantic Rector attracted to Miss Prism. Both Jack and Algernon ask Chasuble to christen them Earnest, though no christening actually takes place. As Cecily says, “He has never written a single book, so you can imagine how much he knows.”
Algernon’s cousin, with whom Jack — as Earnest — is in love and to whom he proposes marriage. She accepts, believing him to be Algy’s friend Earnest. As she explains to Jack, her “ideal has always been to love someone of the name Earnest. There is something in that name that inspires absolute confidence.” Her mother, Lady Augusta Bracknell, initially forbids their marriage, because while Jack seems an otherwise eligible bachelor, he cannot identify his parents, as he was found abandoned in a handbag. The play’s end, however, establishes Jack’s identity; Lady Bracknell grants permission, and the lovers are united.
The self-deprecating butler who serves Algernon in his London residence.
The servant at Jack’s country manor house in Hertfordshire.
Jack (Earnest) Worthing’s friend, Lady Bracknell’s nephew, and Gwendolen’s cousin. In order to free himself from unwanted social and family responsibilities, Algy has invented an invalid friend, Bunbury, whose ailing health frequently — and conveniently — requires Algernon’s attention, enabling him to skip dinners with boring guests and tiresome relatives.
Ostentatiously cynical and constantly hungry, Algernon pretends to be Jack’s brother Earnest and visits Jack’s ward Cecily Cardew. He falls in love with her and proposes matrimony. Jack refuses his permission for Algernon to marry Cecily unless Lady Bracknell gives her permission for Jack to marry Gwendolen, which, at the play’s end, she does. The mystery of Jack’s parentage reveals that Jack and Algy are actually brothers.
Miss Laetitia Prism
Cecily’s absentminded governess who is wooed by Chasuble. Formerly, while working for Lady Bracknell, she wrote a novel then lost Jack in the railway station. She “deposited the manuscript in the bassinet, and placed the baby in the handbag,” which was lost in the cloak room of Victoria Station.
John “Jack” Worthing (Earnest) begins the play of unknown parentage, an orphaned infant found in a handbag in a cloak room at London’s Victoria Station. Discovered and raised by Thomas Cardew, Jack becomes guardian of Cardew’s granddaughter, Cecily. Though he calls himself Jack in the country, he identifies himself as Earnest when in the city. In order to excuse himself when he leaves for the city, he tells Cecily that he must get his wicked citified brother, Earnest, out of various scrapes. In time, Cecily becomes infatuated with this imaginary brother Earnest. By the play’s end, it is revealed that Miss Prism had left Jack at the station, that Lady Bracknell’s sister Mrs. Moncrieff is his mother, and that Jack is Algy’s elder brother. Also, significantly, Jack, who has been named after his father General Earnest John Moncrieff, actually is named Earnest
Morals and Morality
Much of The Importance of Being Earnest’s comedy stems from the ways various characters flaunt the moral strictures of the day, without ever behaving beyond the pale of acceptable society. The use of the social lie is pervasive, sometimes carried to great lengths as when Algernon goes “Bunburying” or Jack invents his rakish brother Earnest so that he may escape to the city. Another example is Miss Prism’s sudden headache when the opportunity to go walking (and possibly indulge in some form of sexual activity) with Canon Chasuble presents itself.
Love and Passion
One of Wilde’s satiric targets is romantic and sentimental love, which he ridicules by having the women fall in love with a man because of his name rather than more personal attributes. Wilde carries parody of romantic love to an extreme in the relationship between Algernon and Cecily, for she has fallen in love with him — and in fact charted their entire relationship — before ever meeting him. She writes of their love in her diary, noting the ups and downs of their affair, including authoring love letters to and from herself.
The play’s action is divided between the city and the country, London and the pastoral county of Hertfordshire. Traditionally, locations like these symbolize different attitudes toward life, contrasting, for example, the corruption of urban living with the simple bucolic pleasures of rural farm life. As Jack says, “when one is in town one amuses oneself. When one is in the country one amuses other people. It is excessively boring.” Wilde’s symbolism does not adhere rigidly to audience expectations, however. Though Jack is more sedate while in the country and more festive when in London, Cecily is far from the innocent she appears (and pretends to be around her guardian). Her handling of her “affair” with Algernon/Earnest shows her to be as competent in romance as any city woman. Language and Meaning
Those familiar with semiotic theory (signs and symbols) will notice the ways various characters in the play obsess over the signifier. The best example is the desire of both Gwendolen and Cecily to love men named Earnest. They see something mystical in the processing of naming and assume some connection between the word (the signifier) and the person (the signified), that one who is named Earnest will naturally behave earnestly.
Both Jack and Algernon struggle to remain free of the restrictions of Victorian convention. Jack does so by maintaining a double identity, being Jack in the country and Earnest in the city. Algernon achieves similar results by inventing an invalid named Bunbury who constantly requires his attentions. This similarity in Algernon and Jack’s behavior also offers a clue to the men’s true relationship as brothers (further duality is indicated by their respective attractions to very similar women, Gwendolen and Cecily
Most commonly seen in Shakespeare’s romance plays like As You Like It or A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the plot of a typical romantic comedy involves an idealized pair of lovers who the circumstances of daily life or social convention seem destined to keep apart. Along the way, the lovers escape their troubles, at least for a while, entering an ideal world (like the Garden of Eden) where conflicts resolve and the lovers ultimately come together. The plots of such comedies contain pairs of characters and conclude happily, often exhibiting poetic justice, with the good rewarded and the evil punished.
While The Importance of Being Earnest certainly fits this description, it is a play that is appraised beyond simple romantic comedy. In fact, part of the play’s wide and lasting appeal is that it so competently fits into any number of comedy genres, including comedies of manners, farces, and parodies.
Comedy of Manners
Generally set in sophisticated society, this type of intellectual comedy privileges witty dialogue over plot, though social intrigue involving the problems of lovers — faithful and unfaithful — can be complicated. The comedy arises from the critique of the fashions, manners, and behavior of elevated society. While often featuring standard characters such as fools, fops, conniving servants, and jealous husbands, the action itself is largely realistic. At least one character, like the audience, accurately comprehends the foolish nature of the people and their situations. In addition to Restoration Comedies like William Congreve’s The Way of the World, other examples would be Goldsmith’s She Stoops to Conquer, Sheridan’s School for Scandal, and Noel Coward’s Private Lives.
This type of low comedy relies on physical gags, coarse wit, and generally broad humor. Laughter arises as exaggerated characters, sometimes caricatures of social types, extricate themselves from improbable situations. Farce occasionally involves disguise or the confusion of gender roles. Algernon’s indulgence with food and his short attention span qualify him as a farcical character, as does Miss Prism’s bumbling mix-up with her novel and the infant Jack.
A work which, for comic or satiric effect, imitates another, familiar, usually serious work, mocking the recognizable trademarks of an individual author, style, or genre. Successful parody assumes an informed audience, with knowledge of the parodied target. For example, one of the most parodied works today is the “Mona Lisa” painting which shows up in cartoons, advertisements, and fine art. In Earnest, Wilde parodies, among other things, love at first sight by having his characters fall in love before they ever see each other
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stoodAnd looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I —
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
In this line Frost introduces the elements of his primary metaphor, the diverging roads.
Here the speaker expresses his regret at his human limitations, that he must make a choice. Yet, the choice is not easy, since “long I stood” before coming to a decision.
He examines the path as best he can, but his vision is limited because the path bends and is covered over. These lines indicate that although the speaker would like to acquire more information, he is prevented from doing so because of the nature of his environment.
In these lines, the speaker seems to indicate that the second path is a more attractive choice because no one has taken it lately. However, he seems to feel ambivalent, since he also describes the path as “just as fair” as the first rather than more fair.
Although the poet breaks the stanza after line 10, the central idea continues into the third stanza, creating a structural link between these parts of the poem. Here, the speaker states that the paths are “really about the same.” Neither path has been traveled lately. Although he’s searching for a clear logical reason to decide on one path over another, that reason is unavailable.
The speaker makes his decision, trying to persuade himself that he will eventually satisfy his desire to travel both paths, but simultaneously admitting that such a hope is unrealistic. Notice the exclamation mark after line 13; such a punctuation mark conveys excitement, but that excitement is quickly undercut by his admission in the following lines.
In this stanza, the tone clearly shifts. This is the only stanza which also begins with a new sentence, indicating a stronger break from the previous ideas. The speaker imagines himself in the future, discussing his life. What he suggests, here, though, appears to contradict what he has said earlier. At the end of the poem, in the future, he will claim that the paths were different from each other and that he courageously did not choose the conventional route. Perhaps he will actually believe this in the future; perhaps he only wishes that he could choose “the one less traveled by
On the surface, “The Road Not Taken” seems to be encouraging the reader to follow the road “less travelled by” in life, a not-very-subtle metaphor for living life as a loner and choosing independence for its own sake when all other considerations come up equal. There is some evidence that makes this interpretation reasonable. The central situation is that one has to choose one road or the other without compromise — an absolutist situation that resembles the way that moral dilemmas are often phrased. Since there is really no distinction made between the roads except that one has been travelled on more than the other, that would be the only basis on which to make a choice. The tone of this poem is another indicator that an important decision is being made, with careful, deliberate concentration. Since so much is being put into the choice and the less travelled road is the one chosen, it is reasonable for the reader to assume that this is what the message is supposed to be.
The poem’s speaker, though, is not certain that individuality is the right path to take. The less travelled road is said to only “perhaps” have a better claim. Much is made about how slight the differences between the paths are (particularly in lines 9-19), and the speaker expects that when he looks back on this choice with the benefit of increased knowledge, he will sigh. If this is a testament to individuality, it is a pretty flimsy one. This speaker does not celebrate individualism, but accepts it.
Choices and Consequences
The road that forks into two different directions always presents a choice to be made, in life as well as in poetry. The speaker of this poem is not pleased about having to make this choice and says that he would like to travel both roads. This is impossible, of course, if the speaker is going to be “one traveler”: this raises the philosophical question of identity. What the poem implies, but does not state directly, is that the most important factor to consider when making a choice is that the course of action chosen should fit in with the decisions that one has made in the past. This speaker is distressed about being faced with two paths that lead in different directions because the wrong choice will lead to a lack of integrity. If there were no such thing as free will, the problem would not be about which choice to make: the decision would make itself. In the vision of another writer, this is exactly what would happen. Another writer, faced with the same two roads, would know without a second thought which one to follow. The speaker of “The Road Not Taken” is aware of the implications of choosing badly and does not see enough difference between the two roads to make one stand out as the obvious choice. But it is the nature of life that choosing cannot be avoided.
The only way to approach such a dilemma, the poem implies, is to study all of the details until something makes one direction more important than the other. The difference may be small, nearly unnoticeable, but it will be there. In this case, the speaker of the poem considers both sides carefully and is open to anything that can make a difference. From the middle of the first stanza to the end of the third, physical characteristics are examined. For the most part, the roads are found to be the same: “just as fair” in line 6; “really about the same” in line 10; “both ... equally lay” in line 11. The one difference is that one has been overgrown with grass from not being used, and, on that basis, the narrator follows it. There is no indication that this slight distinction is the sign that the speaker was looking for or that he feels that the right choice has been made. On the contrary, the speaker thinks that his choice may look like the wrong decision “ages and ages hence.” It would not be right, therefore, to say that choosing this particular road was the most important thing, but it is the fact that a choice has been made at all “that has made all the difference
“The Road Not Taken” is arranged into four stanzas of five lines each. Its rhyme scheme is abaab, which means that the first line in each stanza rhymes with the third and fourth lines, while the second line rhymes with the fifth line.
Most of the lines are written in a loose or interrupted iambic meter. An iambic foot contains two syllables, an unstressed one followed by a stressed one. Because most of the lines contain nine syllables, however, the poem cannot be strictly iambic. Often, the extra syllable will be unstressed and will occur near the caesura, or pause, within the line. The meter can be diagrammed as follows (with the caesura marked //):
Then took / the other, // as just / as fair
ÔÑÍ ÞÕíÏÉ Sunday Morning by Wallace Stevens Sunday Morning by Wallace Stevens
Complacencies of the peignoir, and late
Coffee and oranges in a sunny chair,
And the green freedom of a cockatoo
Upon a rug mingle to dissipate
The holy hush of ancient sacrifice.
She dreams a little, and she feels the dark
Encroachment of that old catastrophe,
As a calm darkness among water-lights.
The pungent oranges and bright, green wings
Seem things in some procession of the dead,
Winding across wide water, without sound.
In the first stanza, a complacent woman lounges in her dressing gown late into a Sunday morning, eating a leisurely breakfast and enjoying the vivid, vibrant beauty of the natural world around her. She takes great pleasure in her coffee and oranges, her mood reflected by the “sunny” chair and the cockatoo that has been released onto the rug. She is spending a morning at home instead of going to church. The reference to the “holy hush of ancient sacrifice” suggests that the day is Easter Sunday. Initially, the pull of the natural world dissipates the traditional power this day has over the woman, as she has chosen not to take part in Christian rituals. However, as she dreams, the pleasure she experiences this morning is soon extinguished by “the dark encroachment of that old catastrophe,” a reference to the crucifixion of Christ. She recognizes that the secular beauty she appreciates is not eternal, and so the colorful oranges and parrot, earlier appearing so full of life, now “seem things in some procession of the dead.”
She becomes caught up in Christian dogma as “her dreaming feet” transport her to the “dominion of the blood and sepulchre,” symbolic of the ritualistic ceremony in celebration of the Last Supper and Christ’s interment. The blood refers to the wine and the sepulchre to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre that contained the tomb where Christ’s body was laid on Good Friday. Thus, the sensual pleasure of the late morning coffee and oranges has been replaced by the spiritual satisfaction of the bread and wine communion.
The voice of the poet questions the woman’s decision to turn her back on the beauty of the natural world and devote herself to her religion. He insists that she could find divinity through a connection to the splendor of the earth. Her earthly pleasures, which he enumerates in this stanza through images of the seasons, should be as cherished as “the thought of heaven.” The poet exhorts her to appreciate the very transience of her world since it encompasses the pleasures and pains of living. These passions, not the superstitions that live in “silent shadows and in dreams,” are “the measures destined for her soul.”
In the third stanza, the speaker expands his focus on religion to the Greek god Jove who had no traditional family to nurture him and no natural connections to the “sweet land.” The speaker links this ancient myth to the birth of Christ through the reference to the star that guided the shepherds and wise men to Bethlehem. Both myths, he suggests, are disconnected from human reality. As humanity finds the divine in the natural world, the sky will appear “friendlier,” no longer marking the division between heaven and earth.
The woman’s voice returns at the beginning of the next two stanzas as she questions the poet’s argument that earthly pleasures will provide spiritual fulfillment. While nature fills her with contentment, she wonders whether she can find paradise there. Here, the poet reasserts and clarifies his position. In his response, he acknowledges the impermanence of the world but argues that the bliss she experiences observing the beauty of nature is everlasting through immediate observance of the spring and through the vividness of her memory. Christian theology, with its “chimera of the grave” (its dark dreams of the crucifixion of Christ) or even its “melodious isles” will not endure as will the magnificence of nature for her.
She complains that even while experiencing contentment in her relationship to the natural world, she feels “the need of some imperishable bliss,” which Christianity insists can be found only in complete devotion to the church. The poet counters, “death is the mother of beauty,” asserting that she can only experience true satisfaction through the appreciation of that which is impermanent. To prove his point, he describes the passions of youth, symbolized by the ripening of plums and pears. When death “strews the leaves of sure obliteration on our paths,” lovers’ desires will be heightened as they realize the importance of the moment.
In stanza six, the poet continues his argument that death is the mother of beauty, juxtaposing it with a counter vision of the stasis of heaven, with its ripe fruit that never falls, hanging heavy in “that perfect sky.” The rivers there never pour out into the seas or touch the shores. In contrast, “our perishing earth” of beginnings and endings is colored with “inarticulate” pangs and delicious tastes and odors of pear and plum, where she lounges during “silken weavings” of afternoons.
The next stanza suggests an alternative to traditional worship. The poet describes a pagan, almost savage, celebration of the earth, as a ring of men chant sensuous songs praising the beauty of a summer morning. They do not worship a specific god, but the earth for them has the same intense power that had previously been associated with the Christian God, and thus they are devoted to it. As they strip naked in an act of merging their energies with those of nature, they experience paradise. Their chant encompasses all the elements of nature, “the windy lake” and angelic trees as their songs echo off the hills long after they leave. The poet symbolizes this “heavenly fellowship” between nature and the men by noting the “dew upon their feet” as they dance and chant.
The voice of the poet and that of the woman come together in acceptance of an alternate form of worship in the final stanza of the poem. The single voice here notes the inevitability of decay and death and understands that an appreciation of that mutability enriches present experience. The woman acknowledges that Jesus’ tomb was not endowed with mystical spirits, that it only contained his grave. She now turns to the natural world, with its “old chaos of the sun” and its understanding of days and nights, beginning and ends.
This realignment with the pagan world of earthly pleasures releases her from the bonds of her religion so that she is now “unsponsored” and free. The natural world is full of the “spontaneous cries” of its creatures in their beautiful surroundings. The final line reinforces the statement that death is the mother of beauty, as the free flying pigeons, “on extended wings” rise and fall following no prescribed course but eventually descend into darkness at the close of day
Belief and Doubt
The woman in the poem moves back and forth between belief and doubt as she enters into a dialogue with the poet about spiritual fulfillment. At the beginning of the poem, she appears to be content in her newfound appreciation of the earthly pleasures of the natural world. This world with its vivid colors and leisurely breakfasts offers her a sense of freedom in the time she allows herself to appreciate the bounty of nature. Soon, however, doubt over the choice she has made this Sunday morning ruins her serenity. As she appreciates the sensuality of nature, she experiences a growing awareness and dread of its transitory nature. As a result, she becomes filled with spiritual anxiety to the point that she begins to believe that a reversion to Christian rituals and dogma will lead to salvation.
As the speaker tries to convince her to return to her world of earthly delights, she struggles to maintain her belief in traditional theology through a series of questions on the nature of that theology. She wonders whether earth will “seem all of paradise that we shall know” especially given its impermanence. Nature fills her with contentment, yet she asks, “when the birds are gone, and their warm fields return no more, where, then, is paradise?” She continually resists the poet’s promotion of a spiritual connection to nature, insisting, “I still feel the need of some imperishable bliss,” which she had found in a Christian vision of eternity.
The speaker’s voice, however, never wavers from his assertion that she must find divinity within herself, and that this can only be accomplished through a communion with nature. By meeting each question with an imaginative yet logical response, the speaker slowly convinces her to doubt her old beliefs in the divinity of traditional religion. By the end of the poem, she has returned to the position she held at the beginning, again aligning herself with the freedom of birds, “unsponsored” in her attachment to her natural world.
Death and Life
The speaker’s strongest argument for the woman to devote herself to an intense relationship with nature comes in the form of an examination of death and life. He continually associates Christianity and the religions of the past with death. In the first stanza, he notes the darkness of “that old catastrophe,” the crucifixion of Christ, and of the “dominion of the blood and sepulchre,” the important Christian ritual of communion where believers drink the blood and eat the body of Christ. He also finds death in the static nature of heaven where ripe fruit never falls and the “boughs hang always heavy in that perfect sky.” In this immutable world, with its “dividing and indifferent blue,” she will never, he insists, be able to make an emotional connection.
The speaker points out that a celebration of nature, by contrast, is a celebration of life, even as he acknowledges its cyclical patterns of death and rebirth. He argues that the very fact of inevitable change fills the present with a stronger sense of vibrancy and poignancy. Thus, this form of “death is the mother of beauty” and so should be accepted as a crucial part of an appreciation of the moment.
In his “Adagia,” a set of musings on poetry and the imagination collected in Opus Posthumous(1957), Stevens wrote about the importance of the relation of art to life, since with our modern age’s lack of faith in God, “the mind turns to its own creations and examines them, for what they validate and invalidate, for what they reveal, for the support they give.” This search for an imaginative connection to the real world becomes another dominant theme in the poem.
The speaker continually engages his imagination to convince the woman that fulfillment lies in her connection with nature. The vivid colors of the oranges and the parrot, the “pungent fruit,” reflect the “passions of rain, or moods in falling snow.” Birds “test[ing] the reality of misty fields, by their sweet questionings” and the “trees, like serafin” illustrate as no philosophizing could manage the limitless, transcendent beauty and bounty of the natural world and call the woman to a communion with it. Faith in the possibilities of spiritual contentment is thus sustained through the power of the imagination
The poem takes the form of a conversation or philosophical dialogue between the central character, a woman who is on a quest to find spiritual fulfillment, and the voice of the poet, who attempts to aid her during her journey. The poem could also be regarded as a conversation between self and soul, between the social self that feels pressured to conform to traditional religious doctrines and the internal self that desires a more natural connection with the world.
Its fifteen-line stanzas of blank-verse begins with the woman’s precarious situation: initially she feels contentment spending Sunday morning at home, surrounded by the comfort and beauty of her physical environment. But soon, guilt over her dismissal of traditional Christian rituals on Easter Sunday undermines her pleasure, and she becomes filled with spiritual anxiety, conflicted about which path she should take to spiritual fulfillment. After this first stanza, the poem becomes a dialogue between her voice and that of the poet, between the woman’s philosophical questionings and his assertion that she can find satisfaction only through a personal, intense communion with the natural world.
Most stanzas begin with a question posed by the woman that is answered by the authoritative voice of the poet, reaffirming his position that sensual pleasures supersede any contentment gained from the dead religions of the past. He presents his argument through association and juxtaposition, continually finding alternate ways to present the same point of view. The cumulative effect of the repeated images results in a convincing argument against a devotion to the tenets of Christianity and for a dedication to an appreciation of and communion with the beauty of nature.
Stevens employs two dominant image clusters, which he continually juxtaposes against each other to illustrate his thematic points. He associates the natural world with the warmth of the sun, which the woman enjoys at the beginning of the poem during her leisurely morning at home on this particular Sunday morning. The sun returns in stanza seven, as the speaker personifies his pagan vision in his description of a ring of men chanting “in orgy on a summer morn.” The life-giving properties of the sun are echoed in the vibrant colors associated with the natural world. Initially, the woman lounges complacently on this Sunday morning surrounded by the vivid colors of the oranges she is eating and the “green freedom” of her parrot that has been released onto her rug. Stevens evokes the pleasures of other senses in this setting through the odors of plum and pear. Sound ultimately unifies humans with nature when the men’s boisterous chant echoes off the hills long after they have stopped.
Stevens links an absence of sound to Christianity, suggesting that those mythological voices do not carry into present realities. He reinforces this sense of absence when the woman hears a voice that tells her that no spirits linger in Jesus’ tomb. The vibrant colors of nature are juxtaposed with dark ancient sacrifices, ceremonies of blood. This cluster of images reinforces the speaker’s premise that Christianity is a dead religion that can no longer offer contentment and salvation
ÔÑÍ ÞÕíÏÉ For the Union Dead by Robert Lowell For the Union Dead by Robert Lowell
“Relinquunt Omnia Servare Rem Publicam.”
The old South Boston Aquarium stands
in a Sahara of snow now. Its broken windows are
The bronze weathervane cod has lost half its
The airy tanks are dry.
Once my nose crawled like a snail on the glass; 5
my hand tingled
to burst the bubbles
drifting from the noses of the cowed, compliant
My hand draws back. I often sigh still
for the dark downward and vegetating kingdom 10
of the fish and reptile. One morning last March,
I pressed against the new barbed and galvanized
fence on the Boston Common. Behind their cage,
yellow dinosaur steamshovels were grunting
as they cropped up tons of mush and grass 15
to gouge their underworld garage.
Parking spaces luxuriate like civic
sandpiles in the heart of Boston.
A girdle of orange, Puritan-pumpkin colored
braces the tingling Statehouse, 20
shaking over the excavations, as it faces Colonel
and his bell-cheeked Negro infantry
on St. Gaudens’ shaking Civil War relief,
propped by a plank splint against the garage’s
Two months after marching through Boston, 25
half the regiment was dead; at the dedication
William James could almost hear the bronze
Their monument sticks like a fishbone
in the city’s throat. 30
Its colonel is as lean
as a compass-needle.
He has an angry wrenlike vigilance,
a greyhound’s gentle tautness;
he seems to wince at pleasure, 35
and suffocate for privacy.
He is out of bounds now. He rejoices in man’s
peculiar power to choose life and die —
when he leads his black soldiers to death,
he cannot bend his back. 40
On a thousand small town New England greens,
the old white churches hold their air
of sparse, sincere rebellion; frayed flags
quilt the graveyards of the grand Army of the
The stone statues of the abstract Union Soldier 45
grow slimmer and younger each year —
wasp-waisted, they doze over muskets
and muse through their sideburns ...
Shaw’s father wanted no monument
except the ditch, 50
where is son’s body was thrown
and lost with his “niggers.”
The ditch is nearer.
There are no statues for the last war here;
on Boylston Street, a commercial photograph 55
shows Hiroshima boiling
over a Mosler Safe, the “Rock of Ages”
that survived the blast. Space is nearer.
When I crouch to my television set,
the drained faced of Negro school-children rise like 60
is riding on his bubble,
for the blessed break.
The Aquarium is gone. Everywhere 65
giant finned cars nose forward like fish;
a savage servility
slides by on grease.
The poem’s epigraph is the Latin inscription on the memorial to Colonel Shaw and the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Regiment that he commanded. In English, the inscription (which Lowell revised for the poem) reads, “He leaves all else to serve the republic.” By quoting this inscription, Lowell introduces the theme of noble self-sacrifice.
The opening stanza describes the closed South Boston Aquarium. The simple sentence patterns emphasize a sense of loss and dilapidation. In particular, a list of strong adjectives evoke this melancholy mood; the windows are “broken” and “boarded,” the weathervane’s scales are “lost,” and the fish tanks are “airy” and “dry.” Everything is ruined, broken, and bare.
While the opening stanza seems to imply a nostalgia for a time before the South Boston Aquarium’s ruin, the next two stanzas suggest that the past was far from ideal. The speaker remembers a childhood visit to the aquarium. Peering into the tanks, he feels great excitement, as his hand “tingled.” However, what delights him is not the sight of the fish but an idiosyncratic desire to “burst the bubbles” coming from them. Furthermore, this image of rising bubbles — which the poem will return to — presents the fish as trapped and submissive, “cowed, compliant.” The next stanza further elucidates the speaker’s theory of historical regression. The speaker claims to “sigh still / for the dark downward and vegetating kingdom / of the fish and reptile.” The kingdom of fish is literally heading “dark downward” as they swim down and away from the aquarium light. More broadly, this image suggests a sense that, like the fish and reptile kingdom, the kingdom of humans is getting worse, darker, and less noble. Also, the word “kingdom” introduces the poem’s public interests; “For the Union Dead” addresses the mood of American society as it regresses from idealism to despair.
Continuing a sentence from the previous stanza, the poem describes the “new barbed and galvanized // fence on the Boston Common.” This image suggests much of the speaker’s attitude toward contemporary life. What is “new” is a particularly ugly and menacing border between people. The “fence” splits the Boston Common, a public area where people usually congregate. Instead of a crowd enjoying the scenery, however, bulldozers dig up earth in order to build a parking garage. The scene is portrayed as savage and hellish, as the bulldozers are metaphorically described as “dinosaur[s]” and the underground garage is deemed an “underworld.” Thus, modern construction tools evoke a prehistoric, animalistic world.
These stanzas describe the poem’s central figure: Colonel Robert Gould Shaw or, more precisely, a memorial to him by Augustus St. Gaudens. During the Civil War, Colonel Shaw led the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Regiment, an all-black squad, on an attack on Fort Wagner, South Carolina. On July 18, 1863, Colonel Shaw was killed. At the time, Shaw and his death represented to many Northerners the idealism of the Union cause. Among the poets who sought to immortalize Shaw in verse was Lowell’s ancestor, poet James Russell Lowell.
The monument to Colonel Shaw overlooks both the Boston Common and the Massachusetts State House. In these stanzas, “For the Union Dead” portrays the harshness of contemporary existence as literally shaking the monument. Like the statehouse metaphorically “shaking over the excavations” in anger, the “Civil War relief” is “shaking.” This stanza depicts a basic contrast between the idealism the soldiers displayed when dying for a just cause and contemporary society’s more amoral struggle to construct more parking spaces. Even the effort to stabilize the monument with a “plank splint” suggests a lack of care for the honorable moments in Boston’s past that the monument commemorates.
These stanzas also contrast Boston’s present with its past. William James was a philosopher, author (his most famous book is The Types of Varieties of Religious Experience), and member of the distinguished James family. (His brother Henry, the novelist and short story writer, wrote, among other works, Portrait of a Lady.) James’s comment at the monument’s 1897 dedication that he “could almost hear the bronze Negroes breathe” gives a sense of deep appreciation and respect for the slain men’s heroism and sacrifice. Yet, a few generations later, “Their monument sticks like a fishbone / in the city’s throat.” Instead of reverence, the city’s attitude toward the soldiers and what they represented has shifted to discomfort. Furthermore, the stern images that Lowell presents of Colonel Shaw suggest Shaw’s unease with the public role others claim for him: “he seems to wince at pleasure, / and suffocate for privacy.”
Stanza 10 analyzes the particular heroism that Shaw’s actions displayed. Unlike James, who “could almost hear the bronze Negroes breathe,” Shaw is flatly described as being “out of bounds now.” In a literal sense, Shaw exists “out of bounds,” because he is dead and beyond the bounds of life. In a more figurative sense, Shaw’s self-sacrifice seems incomprehensible to the contemporary age. Shaw’s triumph was “to choose life and die”; he acted humanely, but at the cost of his own life.
In the following two stanzas, the Civil War seems to recede into the New England landscape of “small town New England greens,” “white churches,” and the monument. Even the bronze soldiers appear to “grow slimmer and younger each year.” Like the flags that adorn the graves of the Union dead, the connection between New England’s present and its past seems increasingly “frayed.”
Until this point, “For the Union Dead” idealizes Shaw’s sacrifice and, to a certain extent, the age and culture that valorized Shaw’s actions as noble. In this stanza, the poem’s tone shifts; the language turns sparse and conversational.
In quick succession, these two stanzas present a series of apocalyptic images of twentieth-century life. “The ditch is nearer,” the poem flatly declares in an image that echoes that of the ditch where Shaw and the black soldiers were hastily buried. As the poem quickly makes clear, recent technological advances and cultural changes have increased the possibility for mass killing. War has become more terrible and less worthy of commemoration; Lowell, the former conscientious objector to World War II, notes, “There are no statues for the last war here.” The “last war” means only the previous, not the final, war. World War II featured the first atomic bomb, whose effects a “commercial photograph,” not a civic monument, displays. In turn, this mass slaughter of civilians becomes an advertisement for a safe, testifying to its resiliency. “Space is nearer,” the poem declares, referring most overtly to the various space explorations. However, this pared-down declaration suggests that technology has brought mankind closer to a giant void, not a new frontier of knowledge. Finally, the television set presents images of civil rights strife; “the drained faces of Negro school-children” recall the difficulties civil rights activists faced and the hostility African-American schoolchildren encountered when trying to integrate schools.
The final two stanzas of “For the Union Dead” revise images from earlier in the poem. Like the child in stanza 2, whose “hand tingled / to burst the bubbles,” Shaw “is riding on his bubble,” waiting “for the blessed break.” This apocalyptic image suggests either a further, more awful bloodshed or break toward the idealism Shaw represents. The final stanza’s tone, alternatively plaintive and angry, suggests the former possibility. “The Aquarium is gone,” the speaker states, implying that it has been replaced with something far worse. Technology and its influence are ubiquitous; instead of actual fish for children to admire, shark-like, “giant finned cars” fight each other for parking spaces. The final two lines, “a savage servility / slides by on grease,” further echo the poem’s earlier images. The technologically driven present makes people servile as “the cowed, compliant fish” of the second stanza; ironically, though, mankind has become even more savage than these animals
Idealism and Despair
“For the Union Dead” celebrates Colonel Shaw for embracing a paradox. Shaw, the poem declares, “rejoices in man’s lovely, / peculiar power to chose life and die.” This “power” is “lovely,” meaning both beautiful and full of love, because an almost Christ-like, self-sacrificial desire motivates his death. The “power” is “peculiar,” meaning both odd and particular to humans. The oddness resides in the fact that Colonel Shaw dies for his principles; his strength does not protect his life. Finally, this power is peculiar to humankind as a full consciousness of the consequences makes Shaw’s actions heroic. He faced the risks consciously.
Lowell also “delights” in these actions. However, “For the Union Dead” repeatedly contrasts the idealism that motivates Shaw with contemporary forms of motivating self-interest. The most persistent contrast is between the Civil War and World War II. In his October 13, 1943, letter to President Roosevelt, Lowell stated his opposition to World War II in language evocative of “For the Union Dead.” Recalling that “members of my family had served in all our wars since the Declaration of Independence,” Lowell characterized America as “prepared to wage a war without quarter or principles.” According to “For the Union Dead,” this lack of mercy and morals characterizes modern warfare, which is waged with weapons indiscriminate and awful as the nuclear bomb. What is lacking is Shaw’s heroic, doomed idealism — his willingness to “to choose life and die.”
Devolution of Humankind
According to “For the Union Dead,” technology works to remake humans into beasts. Early in the poem, the speaker declares, “I often sigh still / for the dark downward and vegetating kingdom / of fish and reptile.” Similarly, the poem often sighs for technology’s ability to blur the boundaries between the “downward ... kingdom / of fish and reptile” and that of humans. A fear that technology devolves humankind fills the poem. For example, the phrases “yellow dinosaur steamshovels were grunting” and “giant finned cars nose forward like fish” both compare inanimate technological products and, implicitly, those who use them to creatures far below humans in the classical, great chain of being: “grunting” beasts or “cowed, compliant fish.”
As humans becomes more beastly, they also increase their ability to slaughter each other. In a very subtle reference, “For the Union Dead” mentions the Civil War soldiers’ “muskets.” Instead of muskets, modern armies possess atomic bombs. “Space is nearer,” the poem declares, after describing “the blast” that leveled Hiroshima. Accompanying its devolution, humankind’s increased firepower brings it closer to the point of extinction. For Lowell, writing during the Cold War nuclear arms race, the possibility of nuclear war appeared frighteningly real; if carried out, such a war would have completed the task of turning men and women back into beasts.
Public Vs. Private Life
The title of “For the Union Dead” announces that the work addresses a public subject: the Civil War’s long and tortured legacy. However, the poem begins with the private, childhood memory of the poet visiting the South Boston Aquarium. By its end, “For the Union Dead” relates this memory to much more public events and places: among them, a memorial to the Union dead, William James’s comments at its dedication, and a photograph of Hiroshima placed in a bank window. This technique of showing how the larger political realities intrude into seemingly private moments distinguishes much of Lowell’s poetry; even when it tells what seems to be a narrowly personal anecdote, his poetry often calls attention to the larger societal, cultural, and historical forces at work.
For example, the third stanza mentions, “One morning last March, / I pressed against the new barbed and galvanized // fence on the Boston Common.” The opening of this sentence is highly conversational; its tone could be employed in a chat with a friend. Yet, as the anecdote unfolds, it becomes clear that it addresses not so much the speaker’s private life, but the scarring of public space. The fence is “barbed and galvanized,” suitable for a prison. Yet this menacing fence guards the Boston Common, a place where public events take place and where people are free to gather. Thus, the image of the speaker “pressed” against the fence stands for the individual isolated from communal space. At fault is “progress,” defined as the need for more parking space
“For the Union Dead” is written in free-verse quatrains. What this description means is that each stanza consists of four lines of different lengths and that the poem does not adhere to a metrical or rhyming pattern.
Many critics have used Lowell’s own terms to describe this poem’s style. In his 1960 acceptance speech for the National Book Award, Lowell mentioned two kinds of poems — “a cooked and a raw.” The former is very learned and academic, “a poetry that can only be studied,” while the latter is deliberately scandalous and casual, “a poetry that can only be declaimed.” As Ian Hamilton points out in Robert Lowell: A Biography, “For the Union Dead” “can be both studied and declaimed.” The poem’s references to American culture, history, and art make it seem erudite. Yet, the childhood memories the poem recounts are personal and intimate.
To a certain extent, the poem’s seeming casualness disguises its intricate construction. While the poem lacks formal metrical patterns, it presents labyrinthine patterns of images. Among the images that “For the Union Dead” repeatedly employs are bubbles. This image suggests both ascension and delicacy; the bubbles rise yet quickly break apart. In lines 6 and 7, the speaker recounts that “my hand tingled / to burst the bubbles.” Line 60 echoes this image in “the drained faces of Negro school-children rise like balloons”; the following two lines, “Colonel Shaw / is riding on his bubble,” repeat the previous image even more strongly. These repetitions and revisions give the poem a strongly organized sense of obsession as the speaker broods over contemporary society’s ills.
ÔÑÍ ÞÕíÏÉ John ne's Hymn to God the Father John ne's "Hymn to God the Father"
The early poetry of John ne included the sensually charged offerings of “The Flea” and “The Apparition,” for which he later sought ablution in such prayer/poems as “Hymn to God the Father.”
“Hymn to God the Father” features three stanzas, each with six lines. The entire rime scheme of the poem rests on two rimes; each stanza’s scheme is ABABAB.
First Stanza: “Wilt Thou forgive that sin where I begun”
The speaker begins his prayer asking for forgiveness for a sin—the original sin of being born of man and woman. Although he knows he does not remember choosing to be born, he knows that the fact that he is incarnated indicates that he is not soul-perfected: he has karma to burn, he must reap what he has sown. The speaker’s sin-consciousness demonstrates that he has made significant progress as a devotee from the days when he was using his wit and charm to seduce a virgin.
But in addition to the original sin, he is aware that he has been locked in the physical body with animal lusts that he has difficulty controlling: “Wilt Thou forgive that sin through which I run, /
And do run still, though still I do deplore?” He is ashamed of that sin and hates it, but he needs divine aid in overcoming it.
He then says that after the Divine has relieved him of that personal sin, he still needs further Divine aid for he has more sins to confess.
Second Stanza: “Wilt Thou forgive that sin which I have won”
The speaker’s second sin is that he has encouraged “others” in the same sin, that is, the engagement with lust. He has been able to control that lust “A year or two,” but he “wallow’d” in it for about twenty years. After the Great Soul has unburdened him from that sin, the speaker still has more to ask.
Third Stanza: “I have a sin of fear, that when I've spun”
The speaker then names his final sin, and that is the “sin of fear.” He fears that when he dies he shall simply disappear. He believes in his immortal, eternal soul, but he confesses to doubts, because he knows he has not yet achieved union with the Divine.
He then avers that he strongly believes in Christ, and with God the Father’s help, he will become aware of Christ’s shining presence. He knows that his Christ-consciousness “shines now and heretofore.” With that strong faith and complete reliance of “God the Father,” the speaker then can finally say, “I fear no more.”
Because John ne married Anne More, who was only seventeen years old, some scholars have interpreted a pun in the lines, “For I have more” and “I fear no more.” Also, the word “done” is used seven times in the poem. The interpretation of those two terms as puns, however, adds no useful information about the poem.
However, the fact that the rime scheme features only words riming with “ne” and “More” does emphasize that the speaker realizes his great obstacle to spiritual advancement has been throughout his life his indulgence of his lustful appetite.
The obstacle to the speaker’s God-union is his own lack of self-control, not the object of this lust, which Anne More certainly had been. She bore him twelve children in fifteen years and died at age thirty-three
ÔÑÍ I wandered lonely as a cloud by William Wordsworth
I wandered lonely as a cloud"
The speaker says that, wandering like a cloud floating above hills and valleys, he encountered a field of daffodils beside a lake. The dancing, fluttering flowers stretched endlessly along the shore, and though the waves of the lake danced beside the flowers, the daffodils outdid the water in glee. The speaker says that a poet could not help but be happy in such a joyful company of flowers. He says that he stared and stared, but did not realize what wealth the scene would bring him. For now, whenever he feels "vacant" or "pensive," the memory flashes upon "that inward eye / That is the bliss of solitude," and his heart fills with pleasure, "and dances with the daffodils."
The four six-line stanzas of this poem follow a quatrain-couplet rhyme scheme: ABABCC. Each line is metered in iambic tetrameter.
This simple poem, one of the loveliest and most famous in the Wordsworth canon, revisits the familiar subjects of nature and memory, this time with a particularly (simple) spare, musical eloquence. The plot is extremely simple, depicting the poet's wandering and his discovery of a field of daffodils by a lake, the memory of which pleases him and comforts him when he is lonely, bored, or restless. The characterization of the sudden occurrence of a memory--the daffodils "flash upon the inward eye / Which is the bliss of solitude"--is psychologically acute, but the poem's main brilliance lies in the reverse personification of its early stanzas. The speaker is metaphorically compared to a natural object, a cloud--"I wandered lonely as a cloud / That floats on high...", and the daffodils are continually personified as human beings, dancing and "tossing their heads" in "a crowd, a host." This technique implies an inherent unity between man and nature, making it one of Wordsworth's most basic and effective methods for instilling in the reader the feeling the poet so often describes himself as experiencing
William Wordsworth (1770-1850) He was born on 7th April 1770 in Cockermoth, Cumberland in the Lake District. The beauty of the region and landscape provided him with the perfect setting and inspiration to write poems about nature. He wrote the poem "Wandered Lonely as a Cloud" in 1804 which was also known as "The Daffodils". The inspiration came while he was out walking with his sister Dorothy near Lake Ullswater in Grasmere and they came upon daffodils growing near the river. Dorothy always played an important part in his life as did her love of nature. The poem was later revised in 1815.
I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o'er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils,
Beside the lake, beneath the trees
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.
The poem is rich with imagery and in the first stanza Wordsworth describes the scene that he sees as he wanders "as lonely as a cloud". He describes the cloud and how it floats and then he sees a "crowd" of golden daffodils which are under the trees and beside a lake and are "fluttering and dancing in the breeze". His choice of words is soft and gentle and it is almost as if there is silent music in the background which the daffodils are dancing to. He is alone admiring the beauty around him and capturing a beautiful snatched moment in time that nature has presented to him. It is as if the daffodils have come alive and have an almost human like quality in the way they are behaving.
Continuous as the stars that shine
And twinkle on the Milky Way,
They stretched in never-ending line
Along the margin of a bay:
Ten thousand saw I at a glance
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance
In the second stanza he compares the daffodils to the shining stars that twinkle on the Milky Way. Because of the number of daffodils which are lined near the river he imagines them to be ten thousand in number and he paints the picture of all of them dancing while they toss their heads in a "sprightly dance" He compares the quantity of the flowers to the continuity of the stars using words like "never-ending" and "continuous". There is an almost funny aspect to the flowers as they "toss" their heads like a group of dancers performing for someone on a stage.
The waves beside them danced, but they
Out-did the sparkling waves in glee: -
A poet could not but be gay
In such a jocund company:
I gazed -and gazed -but little thought
What wealth the show to me had brought
In the third stanza though he can see the waves of the river move as if in a dance too it is no comparison to what the daffodils are doing. They outdo the sparkling waves in a way that make him happy and as he looks at the scene and the "jocund" company that he is in he is happy at the show that they seem to have especially presented to him. Again the choice of words is full of description and imagery, "sparkling" "glee" and "wealth" bring to mind happiness and joy.
For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills
And dances with the daffodils.
In the last stanza he describes how that scene has affected him because whenever he is indoors in his home and on his own "in the bliss of solitude" the memory of those flowers fills him with pleasure and it is as if his heart "dances with the daffodils"
This is a beautiful but simple poem about the beauty of nature and how inspiring it can be. The images that Wordsworth uses to describe the scene are like an artist painting a scene vividly for the reader to see and you can clearly visualise the day exactly how Wordsworth must have seen it all those years ago. It was interesting how Wordsworth gave the daffodils an almost human quality and the way they seemed to resemble dancers dancing in unison presenting a show. There are rhyming words at the end of every alternate line of the poem giving it both continuity and a sense of rhythm throughout
ÔÑÍ edmund spenser sonnet 30 +sonnet 75 Sonnet 30” by Edmund Spenser dramatizes the conflict of a man’s burning desire to be with a woman who has no interest in him. Edmund Spenser uses the metaphorical comparisons of dramatically opposites, fire and ice. The man is fire, who is obsessed for this ice cold woman, which returns nothing. The poem explains why this man can’t get this woman to love him back.
The conflict is best represented by the lines, “How comes it then that this her cold so great is not dissolv’d through my so hot desire, But harder grows the more I her entreat?” (Lines 2-4) Spenser explains that the more the man shows affection and love to the woman, the more the woman loses interest for the man. This Sonnet is full of metaphors, mainly relating and comparing the love the two shows for each other with burning fire, and freezing ice.
In the lines 5 and 6, “Or how comes it that my exceeding heat is not delayed by her heart frozen cold,” the man is metaphorically asking why his “burning” love for her isn’t “melting” her heart; or in other words, why showing his affections for her isn’t attracting the woman. The lines, “…fire, which all things melts, should harden ice, And ice, which is congealed with senseless cold, Should kindle fire by wonderful device?” (Lines 10-12) is the narrator, asking why this love isn’t working out when it should be.
Perhaps the most important lines in the sonnet are the last two lines, “Such is the power of love in gentle mind, that it can alter all the course of kind.” These lines can be paraphrased as, “That is the nature of passionate love, that it can change the natural state of everything.” The word, “miraculous” in line 9 was used to describe the unfortunate realities of their love which is not working out. The last 2 lines conclude that the nature of love has the power to change natural occurrences such as fire melting ice
What distinguishes Spenser's poem from earlier poetry is the personal note it strikes. The poet places himself in the centre of the poem, telling us about his personal situation, emotions and convictions. Such poetry, which expresses the poet's emotions, is called lyric. Lyric poetry became very popular in Spenser's time, the Renaissance, because people began to be interested in the individual. In de Middle Ages man was seen as a part of a community. In the sixteenth century he came to be seen as an individual, unlike every other man. This individualism is reflected in Elizabethan poetry, of which Edmund Spenser is one of the greatest representatives.
In this sonnet, addressed to his wife, Spenser claims to give her immortality in his verse. He does so by starting from a very ordinary, very charming incident that may occur any day in summer by the seaside. The situation is therefore a general one, but Spenser handles it in such a way as to make it intimately personal. His imagination creates a picture of tender young love through the conversation between his lady and himself, absorbed in each other, against the background of the eternal sea. He would like to preserve this experience for ever, but the waves wipe out her name just as cruel time destroys every man-made thing. Nevertheless he feels confident that he is able to immortalize his love by a different kind of writing, his poetry, no matter how short life on earth may be. At the same time the writing of the lady's name, which is the central image of the poem, is transferred from earth to heaven. Love, poetry and religious belief are closely associated.
Technically, Spenser's poetry is at a very high level. He uses simple words so skilfully that they create a complete, harmonious picture. After the action of the first quatrain he switches to the dialogue in the second and third, to conclude with the couplet which summarizes the theme of the sonnet. Spenser's perfect handling of vowels and the wavelike rhythm of his poem can only be appreciated when the sonnet is read aloud so as to bring out its melody. His frequent use of alliteration binds the poem together
This poem, first of all, is a Spenserian sonnet, created by, of course, Edmund Spenser. The Spenserian sonnet is broken up into four parts, with a couplet acting as an answer to the poem. The poet speaks of his trying to immmortalize the woman he loves by writing her name in the sand. He tries to defy nature, God, etc by trying to write her name in a place that is only going to dissapear each time. He writes it in vain, though vanity plays two seperate roles in this poem. By referring to the tide washing the name away, he is expressing a mental and spiritual immortality, and also referring to time and that eventually we will die.
e is saying that people are easily forgotten, especially once they are gone. time often slips thru and many efforts are made in vain. he did not know his writings would still be read today, so how could he be saying that she will always be remembered? memories can forget, paper destroyed, and he could have never been known. so he was only keeping her alive for the short amount of time, for all he knew, 400 hundred years later (currently) we would never know of either of the two. he is saying time washes away all things, good and bad, weather we want it to or not
The speaker seems to have in mind the marriage vow, as it appears in The Book of Common Prayer: “If either of you do know any impediment why ye may not be lawfully joined together in matrimony.” But if he is in fact responding to this question, his meaning is ambiguous. He might be saying that no one should let him acknowledge that there are obstacles to the marriage; conversely, he may be vowing that he will never recognize any problems interfering with a true union. The difficulties encountered in the meaning of the first sentence are reflected in its negative cast (“let me not”) as well as its construction. Not only is it a run-on line, but it fights against being placed in the regular meter of iambic pentameter from its beginnings. The sentence does not conform to poetic conventions, much as the speaker refuses to give an easy or expected answer.
The last half of line 2 seems absurd, unless the reader realizes that the speaker may be addressing two different types of love. Unconditional “Love,” not the “love” that changes or causes change, is the subject of this sonnet; coincidentally or not, the more desirable emotional state is distinguished by a capital “I” each time it is mentioned (line 9 and line 11).
In this line, the speaker continues to stress that true love is unbendable, and cannot be transferred from one site to another. But there is clearly a deeper meaning in lines 2 through 4, suggested by the repetition or doubling of many of the words, such as “love,” “alter,” (repeated for a third time in line 11), “remove,” even “bend,” which is reused in line 10. These verbal pairings may represent the harmony of “Love” — or, on the other hand, a lesser lover’s desire to imitate or become like his partner.
In the second quatrain, the speaker begins to describe what real love actually is, after using three lines to inform the reader of what love is not. It would seem that he has at last moved to an affirmative statement about this emotion. Yet he begins with a negative exclamation, and continues to cite what love does not do: like a guiding light over rough waters, love is unvarying and unswerving.
The nautical metaphor used to describe true love in lines 5 and 6 is continued in the next two lines. First a lighthouse, and now a star, help travellers find their way. Because a star’s altitude must be calculated in order to use it as a guide, its distance from earth is no longer a mystery; what remains unknown is its value, or its very nature. Similarly, love provides direction for those who are searching or lost, and though its status is established, its true value is limitless.
The first quatrain explained what love is not; the second one attempted to define what true love is; now, in the third quatrain, the speaker alternates between naming what love’s characteristics are, and are not. Thus the “mirroring” noted in the language of lines 2 through 4 can also be seen in the construction of the sonnet’s quatrains, and probably has similar implications. Using the figure of speech known as personification, the speaker refers to the scythe-wielding Father Time in lines 9 and 10. Though beauty and youth are eventually the victims of his blade, true love remains unaffected by his wrath. The idea of “bending”, first used in line 4, has multiple meanings here: not only is Time’s sickle bent or curved, but it also bends or lays low the metaphorical “roses” of a young person’s complexion. The “compass” of Time’s scythe is its sweeping arc, but it is also a device used to guide ships, and thus reminds the reader of the preceding nautical metaphor.
The pronouns of these lines are ambiguous. “His brief hours” are probably Father Time’s, but the phrase may also be referring to Love’s ability to make time fly, or any mortal’s short life span. In line 12, “it” is part of a phrase that means to endure, but the pronoun may also refer to Time or his sickle. In any case, the eternal consistency and constancy of love is once again stressed — to the lover’s death, or even until doomsday. The accents of line 12 conjure up the sounds of a tolling funeral bell.
With their monosyllabic diction and seemingly straightforward reasoning, these lines are deceptively simple. But what actually is “this”; is it the preceding statement, or the entire argument? And even if the speaker was proven false, how could it be that he never wrote (when the reader knows full well that the speaker is the composer of the son-net), and no one ever fell in love? The twisted logic of this “if-then” statement leaves no room for errors of any kind. The speaker’s difficult argument thus draws to a forced conclusion, though nothing has been affirmed or denied
Shakespeare struggles with time in most of his sonnets. For example, in “Sonnet 18” (Shall I compare thee to a Summer’s day?), one of Shakespeare’s best known poems, he writes about summer’s mutability and the effects of time on beauty and youth:
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimmed;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance of nature’s changing course untrimmed:
The theme of time reappears in “Sonnet 116,” yet in this poem time is so significant that it is actually given a physical presence in the third quatrain.
Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and
Within his bending sickle’s compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom:
Here, the aged figure of Father Time, frequently dressed in a black cloak and carrying an hourglass and a scythe, swings his “bending,” or curved, blade, and destroys all within his “compass,” or range. Time ruins the beautiful “rosy lips and cheeks” of youth. Even so, he can not alter Love (also treated as a proper noun), which is “not Time’s fool” and “bears it out even to the edge of doom.”
Whereas Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 18” addresses the relationship between time and beauty, this sonnet appears to be concerned primarily with the relationship between time and constancy. The speaker of the poem is concerned about the fidelity of the object of his affection. This is most evident earlier in the poem, when Shakespeare questions whether love “alters when it alteration finds, / Or bends with the remover to remove.” The negative tone in this first quatrain changes dramatically at the start of the second quatrain, when the poet declares “O, no! it [love] is an ever-fixed mark.” In the third quatrain, which introduces Father Time, Shakespeare proclaims love’s sovereignty over time with “Love alters not with his [Time’s] brief hours and weeks.” The concluding couplet presents an even stronger assertion: “If this be error and upon me proved, / I never writ, nor no man ever loved.” At the sonnet’s conclusion the poet is so certain that love prevails over time that he rests his career and the entire history of love on his proclamation, in actuality proving nothing but the intensity of his own desire for it to be true.
Truth and Falsehood
In “Sonnet 116” Shakespeare sets out to define true love. In the first two lines, he asserts, “Let me not to the marriage of true minds / Admit impediments,” implying through the word “true” in “true minds” that love can have cerebral qualities, not only emotional ones. His language further suggests that only a select few — “true minds” — are fit to comprehend and embrace true love. In fact, the poet could be implying that there are some who might better understand love, excusing him from any errors he might make elsewhere in the sonnet.
The poet continues with his definition of abiding love by differentiating between true and false love: “Love is not love / Which alters when it alteration finds, / Or bends with the remover to remove.” The first form of love cited, which is treated as a proper noun throughout the remainder of the poem, is considered lasting, whereas the latter form of love is false, as it “alters” and “bends” with time. He continues to define the former, true love, but in an odd way. In an effort to determine what love is, Shakespeare concentrates on what love is not. The sonnet begins with a series of denials that — almost — deny love’s existence entirely. The author appears to catch himself momentarily in the second quatrain, asserting “O, no! it [love] is an ever-fixed mark, / that looks on tempests and is never shaken.” Here, love is likened to a permanent landmark. Even so, Shakespeare again presents love through negative language, by stating that enduring love “is never shaken.” The third quatrain follows this pattern with “Love’snot Time’s fool” and “Love alters not.” The themes of truth and falsehood are therefore given equal regard in “Sonnet 116.”
By discussing both forms of love Shakespeare remains truthful to the human experience, noting man’s greatest potential but also his failings. It is perhaps this honesty that has made this sonnet, however complex, one of the best loved and most frequently anthologized sonnets in Shakespeare’s canon
The sonnet (from the Italian “sonnetto,” meaning “little song”) owes much of its long-standing popularity to the Italian poet Petrarch. By the mid-sixteenth century, this fixed poetic form was adopted by the English, who borrowed the fourteen-line pattern and many of Petrarch’s literary conventions. English writers did, however, alter the rhyme scheme to allow for more variety in rhyming words: while an Italian sonnet might rhyme abba, abba, cdc, dcd, an English or Shakespearean sonnet rhymes abab, cdcd, efef, gg.
In all but three of Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets (“Sonnet 99,” “Sonnet 126” and “Sonnet 145”) the first three groups of four lines each are known as quatrains, and the last two lines are recognized as a couplet. The three breaks between the quatrains and the couplet serve as convenient places where the writer’s train of thought may take a different direction. In “Sonnet 116,” the second quatrain stands apart from the first and the third because it attempts to describe what love is, instead of what it is not. The couplet continues the line of thinking of the quatrains, offering a formal logical proof of the sonnet’s assertions and negations.
A few of this sonnet’s lines, such as 3 and 13, are written in perfect iambic pentameter. Iambic meter, the most familiar rhythm of the English language, is the succession of alternately stressed syllables; an iamb is a group of two syllables in which the first is unstressed and the second is stressed. The use of “penta” (meaning “five”) before “meter” means that there are five iambs per line.
Most of “Sonnet 116,” however, fights against the establishment of any regulated rhythm. The first line begins with a hammering of stressed syllables, as if a judge were rapping a gavel; the meter is also disrupted because of the line’s lack of an end-stop, and its continuation on the next line. More obstructions to the poem’s rhythmic flow are presented by such heavily accented tongue twisters as “Love’s not Time’s fool” (line 9) and “But bears it out even to the edge” (line 12), and another run-on line between lines 9 and 10. As is often the case with Shakespeare’s sonnets, the mood and meaning of the words is reinforced by their rhythm, or lack thereof.