Friday, December 17, 2010

Poetry : Different Subjects

With a detailed consideration of the nature of poetry, the ordinary reader’s reaction to a poem, the various poetical devices and the use of language, it is only appropriate that the student should be helped to acquaint himself with the different subjects tackled by the poets. It is not being claimed that the subjects dealt with in this chapter are all-inclusive. A modest claim should be that it deal with some of the major subjects in English poetry.
Poetry makes a special use of language, but the common functions of language is communication. What the poetic language communicates : feelings, emotions or attitudes of ideas, is the concern in the present chapter. Auden has suggested three wishes of the creative artist : to make something ; to perceive something either in the external world of sense or the internal world of feeling ; and to transmit these perceptions to others. It is the representations of human nature in poetry that is of utmost importance to a sympathetic reader. However, there may be divergent views about the status of language in this emo­tional-linguistic link-up called poetry. Dr. Johnson has made this point abundantly clear :
Nothing can please many and please long, but just representations of human nature……The irregular combinations of fanciful invention may delight awhile, by that novelty of which the-satiety of life sends us all in quest ; but the pleasure of sudden wonder are soon exhausted, and the mind can repose only on stability of truth.
It is the permanence of “truth” as Johnson states it, that strikes Lie reader poetry. The attraction to the “fanciful” use of language is temporary.
Love :
Love, being one of the tenderest feelings of human life, has been a constant source of inspiration to the poets of all ages. This subject knows no limitations even in languages. Dr. Johnson may have considered love only as one of the passions, but in poetry it can be considered as the major subject, and more so in English poetry. Different ages have used different conventions to express this feeling of love, yet the passion in itself has tended to express the vitality and involvement in human affairs in each age. Shakespeare called it as
“O spirt of love, how quick and fresh art thou”
Sir Walter Raleigh
But love is a durable fire
In the mind ever burning ;
Never sick, never old, never dead,
From itself never turning.
John Donne with his impatience said,
For God’s sake hold your tongue and let me love while Christina Rossetti is almost heavenly in
My heart is like a singing bird
Whose nest is in a water’d shoot ;
My heart is like an apple’s tree
Whose boughs are bent with thickest fruit.
My heart is like a rainbow shell
That paddles in a halcyon sea ;
My heart is gladder than all these,
Because my love is come to me.
or Hardy emphasizing the permanence of the lovers’ feeling :
Younder a maid and her wight
Come whispering by.
War’s annals will cloud into night
Ere their story die.
Different attitudes are portrayed in love poetry and these attitudes give rise to different kinds of reactions. The bantering mockery turns the lover’s position from tragedy to comedy ; and to be lovelorn, pale and mute becomes absurd instead of romantic. In success, the lover may transcend all barriers and ride like Browning’s lover in The Last Ride Together. In jealousy, the lover may throttle her to death. He may even start crying in anguish on the changed attitude of the lady, or may fret at the everchanging moods of the lady. To wail, weep, vow and worry himself is the lot of those in love and the burden on poet’s faculties for he is to capture such moods in his poetry.
It would be appropriate to evaluate attitudes to lose as a sub­ject and the different conventions eyed to express it on a time-basis-The sixteenth and seventeenth centuries are the great ages of the love lyric. The sonnet was almost a craze, borrowed from the Italian literature. There were a set stock of expressions, hairlike gold wires. lips of coral, cheeks of red and white roses, “globy fronts” (which means foreheads) like marble, snowy breasts and the lovers all “fry” in the flames of their passion. But Shakespeare gives a jolt to such a set stock of phraseology of love by saying :
My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun ;
Coral is far more red than her lips’ red :
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun ;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head...
Gradually, there is a trend towards sophistication in the courtly love lyrics, with more restraint and a kind of elevation in the level of language. The lady, previously loaded with too many linguistic jewels, seems lighter in comparison now. Suckling is an example :
Of thee (kind boy) I ask no red and white
To make up my delight,
No odd becoming graces.
Black eyes. or little know-not-whats, in faces ;
Make me but mad enough, give me good store
Of love, for her I court,
I ask no more,
’Tis love in love that makes the sport.
There is, then, a departure from the courtly lyric to the metaphy­sical tradition in love. The juxtaposition of hetrogeneous images, or the yoking together in violence of the heterogeneous with the devices or conceits and metaphors dominate the scene. Instead of the smooth, melodious surface texture, there is a new colloquial intimacy and a startling address : “Go and catch a failing star,/Get with child a mandrake root……” or “So, so break off this last lamenting kiss.”
The Elizabethans seldom complicated their love poems with more than decorative similes and metaphors, but the metaphysicals loved to conceive and carry through complex parallels and analogies that added both concreterness and intensity to their subjects. With the eighteenth century, sophistication covers the whole gamut of poetic activity and a new dimension is added to love-expression. The comic element turns to more of social frivolity as an object to be censured, whereas the romantic aspect grows more and more reserved. The position, however changes in the Romantic age where love assumes the role of a tender touch to the sensitive hearts and vitalises or depresses the young poets. Shelley exults while Keats frets in love for Fanny, whereas Byron seems to shock the contem­porary social norms. The natural scene becomes an essential back-ground to all love-expression. Browning does this in his The Lost Mistress. The language too has the easy colloquial touch, which Browning himself introduced :
All’s over, then ; does truth sound bitter
As one at first believes
Hark. ’tis the sparrows’ good-night twitter
About your cottage eaves !
And the leaf-buds on the vine are wooly.
I noticed that, to-day ;
One day more bursts then open fully
—You know the red turns grey.
With this, the personal experience is filled with more and more of torment and dissatisfaction in love and exultation at success in lose. With Edgar Allan Poe, love becomes a spiritual mystery evoked by a series of associative images, and “beauty” is hardly that of a physical woman at all. In “To Helen”, he is comparing the tradi­tional Helen, “the face that launched a thousand ships” into a ten-year war, with the vision of a woman whose beauty has given him peace and serenity of heart. Yeats, in his series of Crazy Jane poems, is anti-intellectual and anti-clerical and combines universal, mystical wisdom with racy, sensual and primitive elements.
Thus, with different periods and with different sensibilities, the treatment of love in poetry has varied and given different facts of human condition and awareness. Yet the most poetic and not-yet-equalled expression in this area of human experience is that of Shake­speare :
Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds
Or bends with the remover to remove :
Or, no ! it is an ever-fixed mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken ;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.
Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
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.
If this be error, and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved.
Nature :
The treatment of nature in English poetry usually dates from the pastoral poetry wherein natural background lends to innocent, philosophic speculations and life devoid of any kind of corruption. This would tend to link Spenser and other poets with this tradition. The eighteenth century trimmed Nature in the form of a well-kept garden with everything in its proper order. However, the revolt or the Romantic Revival as it is popularly known starts with the publication of the Lyrical Ballads by Wordsworth and Coleridge in 1798.
The pastoral poetry spoke of vernal airs and blushing dawns, the bloomy spray, the swelling clusters of the vine, the sun’s mild luster, the gentle gales and the sounding main. Thomas Nashe wrote about the joys of spring as ‘Spring, the Sweet spring is the year’s pleasant king” whereas Shakespeare presents work in abund­ance, in his plays, songs and sonnets.
However, it is with Wordsworth that we normally associate the Nature Rivival in English poetry. Read this about the happy hare :
The hare is running races in her mirth
And with her feet she from the plashy earth
Raises a mist, that, glittering in the sun,
Runs with her all the way, wherever she doth run.
Wordsworth is a particularly personal poet, speaking directly to the reader of his most inward experiences, and the character of those experiences does not communicate itself to the majority of modern readers. But a mystical relationship is not a very common thing to-day. Life has become so urbanized that the intensities of the romantic poets over mountains and nightingales and skylarks and cuckoos and clouds and west winds and the lesser celandine seem alien and remote. Still, Wordsworth’s interest in nature is guided by his interest in human affairs. The association of human condition with natural phenomena is the prime motive in such poetry.
In Wordsworth’s poetry, its often the revelation that through the convict ion of the unity of man with nature, the mind can discover itself in fullness and disciplined calm, that is emphasized. None of the other romantic poets attains the serenity of Wordsworth, but their insights are arrived at in the same way. Keats, in his Ode to A Nightingale attains Wordsworth’s sense of complex harmony and peace through a vision of timeless world roused by the bird’s song. But he can hold it only for an instant, and the end carries no assurance of its truth. Shelley turns Ode to the West est into a prayer for the identification of himself, in the autumnal sadness of his spirit, with the wind itself :
Be thou. spirit fierce.
My spirit ! Be thou me, impetuous one !
and he creates an association between the awakening earth in spring-time, the reawakening of his own spirit to inspiration, and the hope that his poetry may bring a resurrection to human kind.
Drive my dead thoughts over the universe
Like withered leaves, to quicken a new birth !
And, by the incantation of this verse.
Scatter, as from an unextingusished hearth
Ashes and sparks. my words among mankind
Be through my lips to unawakened earth.
The trumpet of a prophecy ! O, wind.
If winter comes, can spring be far behind ?
It has always been a common phenomenon to draw some moral lesson from nature. Thomas Hardy finds a gleam of hope for the new century in The Darkling Thrush. The attitude of’ the twentieth century poets to nature is clearly reflected in W.H. Auden’s words :
To me art’s subject is the human clay
And landscape but the background for a torso.
W.B. Yeats and T.S. Eliot use natural symbols, a swan or a chestnut tree, a desert or a rose garden, but these are in no sense part of the natural world : they are there to objectify an inner world of human feeling. It is only saying one thing in terms of the another. Frost would normally be considered as a nature poet till we keep the above mentioned point in mind. The recurrent theme in Frost’s poetry is man.
The student making his early attempts at practical criticism of nature poetry will have to keep a clear view of the various points. Does nature stand for itself, glorified in itself ? Or, does it represent a human condition, either through the process of symbolization or identification ? Does nature present any kind of anti-thesis to the human picture, thus creating an ironic contrast ? It is such choices and many others that would help the student to approach such poetry with a keener sense.
“Nature herself remains the same ; it is the poet who finds reflections in her of his own varying moods and perceptions. It is his particular senses that respond to the sight, sound, touch, taste and perfume of natural objects ; it is his heart that finds comfort, or feels desolation, or exults in the natural forces of creation and destruction ; it is his mind that contemplates her, and through the thoughts and insights she arouses, leads him to penetrate further into the mysteries of his own being. It may even intensify his sense of fellowship with other men, a truth beautifully suggested in another poem of Frost. The Tuft of Flowers.”
Religion :
Religion, or a faith in religion, has always been the resuming point for a despaired man in life. Some hope t hat somebody would share the griefs and joys and even come to one’s aid at times has always been the key point of religious belief in all nations. Being a tiny force in the huge cosmos, man is subject to a fate which is generally considered as irrational. However, the braver approach is that of the humanist fighting his way through all troubles. Both these view-points have been the subjects for the poetic imaginations to deal with. Tennyson cried hard and still searched for a message in his famous In Memoriam. One may even go deep down and refer to bleak human deprivation or divine deprivation. Shelley, however, chooses to be happy in the triumph of his Prometheus.
With faith as the keystone in religious poetry, remarks Elizabeth Drew more had poetry has been accepted on religious topics than on secular ones. Wordsworth points to one of these reasons :
Readers of moral and religious inclinations, attaching so much importance to the truths which interest them...are prone to overrate the authors by whom those truths are expressed and enforced. They come prepared to import so much passion to the poet’s language that they remain unconscious how little, in fact, they receive from it.
T. S. Eliot refers to the same gap between intention and accomplishment of such writers. Normally, it is an easy “leap from skepticism to assurance” in religious poetry, whereas the death of the old dispensation and the acceptance of the new is hard and uncertain. It is the later view-point that one finds in Journey of the Magi.
There has been a general controversy raised about Eliot himself regarding the enjoyment of poetry which expressed a certain view-point with which the reader tends to differ. Eliot thought that such a situation tends to create a disturbance in the enjoyment of the poem. Milton’s theology, for example, destroys any pleasure in Paradise Lost or Pope’s deism spoils The Essay On Man. There is, however, the other view which negates the importance of any intellectual interference. They suggest that there is ample room for the reader to be objective in the appreciation of such poetry. Eliot has suggested emotional sympathy as the guiding principle of poetic enjoyment without according any credence to intellectual assent. Elizabeth Drew points to the need of a religious faith :
A religious faith, like a humanstic one, is something that helps man in the living of life ; helps him to face “the weariness, the fever and the fret” that any active living in the world of men will often bring. The humanist finds his help in the sense of creative powers latent in the natural world of which he is a part, and alive in human love. The religious believer in general finds it in the faith that a divine order exists in which all apparent human disorder has meaning, and the Christian be­liever finds it especially in the sense of the perpetual immanence of the divince in the temporal, in the figure of Christ.
George Herbert has created the feeling of “a knowing joy” in his relations with the divine. This arises, though, not from the rapture of the mystic union but from the sense of a loving companion-ship. The religious poetry basically rests on an assumption that the human is temporal and transcended for the fulfilment of higher aspirations and attainment of eternal values.
Death :
Death has been yet another theme which has engaged the attention of the poets. Sometimes it has led to philosophic speculation (as in case of Tennyson’s In Memoriam) while at others the poets have challenged its powers and reduced it to a longer sleep after which life begins with new vitality. However, physical life is always threatened with death, and it is in terms of the limited period of human life that a scale of values is evolved. Shakespeare wrote that “If it is not now, yet it will come”. Yeats considered death as “but passing from one room to another”, Cleopatra, at the time of her death in Shakespeare’s play, gives it a touch of magnificence by decking herself to meet her dead Antony. There may even be a reaction in horrors. There may be a state of non-pluss where the protagonist may not be able to talk of fear or hope. It may lead to an outburst of anger directed against the fellow-beings if they were the ones who caused death. This happens the Wilfred Owen’s poems.
In Wordsworth’s sonnet as he remembers his little girl, Catherine, who died when she was four, the feeling seems to flow in simple passionate speech :
Surprised by joy—impatient as the wind
I turned to share the transport—Oh ! with whom
But Thee, deep buried in the silent tomb,
That spot which no viscissitude can find ?
Love, faithful love, recalled thee to my mind––
But how could I forget thee ? Through what power,
Even for the least division of an hour,
Have I been so beguiled as to be blind
To my most grievous loss ?—That thought’s return
Was the worst pang that sorrow ever bore,
Save one, one only, when I stood forlorn,
Knowing my heart’s best treasure was no more,
That neither present time, nor years unborn
Could to my sight that heavenly face restore.
A very moving poem comes from Thomas Hardy about the death of his first wife. In the Voice :
Woman much missed, how you call to me, call to me.
Saying that now you are not as you were
When you changed from the one who was all to me,
But as at first, when our day was fair……
Elizabeth Drew, commenting on the nature of such poems, writes :
In these examples of poems of loss, none illustrates the pure straightforward love lament, pouring itself out in all its subjec­tive pain. Poets feel as other people feel but they are artists, making something from their grief. We may be sure no first-rate poem on this theme was ever composed in the actual stock and agony of bereavement. One of the miseries of that sorrow is that the mind cannot detach itself from its suffering ; escape into concentration elsewhere is impossible
The emotion need not be recollected to tranquillity, but it is recollected before the poem is written, even in poetry giving such a feeling of immediate truth as some of Hardy’s. In Wordsworth’s “A slumber did my spirit seal”, the feeling of loss is very powerful, but it is “distanced” so that the effect is one of controlled serenity. The poem’s simplicity is deceptive. It seems a series of direct statements in the plainest language, but they are so cunningly interrelated that each part depends upon every other part for its full significance. The pause between the two verses in this poem is made to contain all that is unspoken. The past becomes the present without further explanation.
Death as a subject for poetic creation has tended to give rise to varying moods and the poets have created these moods for helping the reader to contemplate about the ultimate goals, and to some extent, limitations of life.
Time :
The passage of time brings to human vision the different stages, even different facets of human life. The innocence of childhood, exube­rance and vitality of youth, the commitment to certain values and sense of responsibility of manhood and the contented or worried life of old age followed by the inevitable death, are all creations in the circle of time. All human activity seems to be caught in the web of time .and any attempt to transcend this barrier of time, to move in eternity, Is the attempt of the brave, may he be a lover, a man in search of some ideal or a soul in search of the divine. Elizabeth Drew calls the tryanny of time as the “foremost” in human life. “Poetry can be immortal, but man himself is doomed to a time world. Transience is the law of his being, as it is of the civilization he creates and even of “the great globe itself”. Andrew Marvell, in his poem To His Coy Mistress makes this clear :
But at my my back I always hear
Time’s winged chariot hurrying near :
And yonder all before us lie
Deserts of vast eternity.
The poet, lying in the midday sunshine, feels, instead of the light and warmth around him, “the always rising of the night”. In George Herbert’s Virtue it is again the same feeling :
Sweet day, so cool, so calm, so bright,
The bridal of the earth and sky :
The dew shall weep thy fall tonight :
For thou must die.
The passing of the beautiful is the expression of the sense of loss caused by the inevitable passage of time.
Associated with this is the idea that the possible enjoyment within the limits of available time should be had before it gets too late. Herrick expresses this feeling in his “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may” and “come, let us go, while we are in our prime/And take the harmless folly of the time”. John Crowe Ransom says this in his Blue Girls :
Twirling your blue skirts, travelling the sword
Under the towers of your seminary,
Go listen to your teachers old and contrary
Without believing a word.
Tie the white fillets then about your hair
And think no more of what will come to pass
Than blue birds that go walking on the grass
And chattering on the air.
Practise your beauty, blue girls, before it fall ;
And I will cry with my loud lips and publish Beauty which all our power shall never establish, It is so frail.
For I could tell you a story which is true ;
I know a lady with a terrible tongue,
Blear eyes fallen from blue,
All her perfections tarnished—yet it is not long
Since she was lovelier than any of you.
Matthew Arnold, in his Growing Old, is sharp with his observation of the old age :
What is it to grow old ?
Is it to lose the glory of the form,
The lustre of the eye ? .
Is it for beauty to forgo her wreath ?
Yes, but not this alone.
Thomas Hardy has yet another complaint to lodge with the reader ;
But Time, to make me grieve,
Part steals, lets part abide ;
And shakes this fragile frame at eve
With throbbings of noontide.
Frustration and Loneliness :
Two more feelings which are closely interlinked have inspired the sensitive minds to versify. These are frustration and loneliness. Frustration may be caused by a failure to get certain ambitions achieved or the betrayal by some one whom one expects to stand by, where loneliness is caused by a sense of being alone, an inability to live with the circumstances and by being deserted by others. Elizabeth Drew writing about these two feelings as represented in poetry states :
In finite terms, death is the end of the individual sentient creature. The poet who writes of it or mourns the pain of personal loss continues to experience life in all its myriad experiences in the body mind. The pain of loss, moreover, however agonizing, however haunting in memory, quiets imperceptibly into accep­tance as the currents of active living and of fresh emotions flow over it. Worse, perhaps, than the sufferings of grief are the torments that man endures from the conflicts within his own being. What Yeats dreads in An Acre of Grass is not death but the loss of spirit, the fire that burns only so long as the continual process of self-creation continues. Man, says Auden, is “the only animal aware of lack of finish” : the only animal aware of the difference between what things are and what they ought to be. Something drives him to find meaning in the life ; to regard it as a venture to be fulfilled and himself as an ins­trument which should be used for some purpose beyond him-self. Hence his miseries ; for not only is he inevitably van­quished by time, but the complexities of his own nature thwart him in his efforts to and his true path.
The cause of being lonely can lie in a state of lack of a fruitful relationship with God or nature or other men and women or the Muse. Coleridge’s Ode Defection is an expression of the loss capacity for joy, the “strong music of the soul” :
A grief without a pang, void, dark, and drear,
A stifled, drowsy, unimpassioned grief’,
Which finds no natural outlet, no relief,
In word, or sigh, or tear
O Lady ! in this wan and heartless mood,
To other thought by yonder throstle wood,
All this long eve, so balmy and serene,
Have I been gazing on the western sky,
And its peculiar tint of yellow green :
And still I gaze-and with how blank an eye !
And these thin clouds above, in flakes and bars,
That give away their motion to the stars ;
Those stars, that glide behind them or between,
Now sparkling, now bedimmed, but always seen :
You crescent Moon, as fixed as if it grew
In its own cloudless, starless lake of blue ;
I see them all so excellently fair,
I see, not feel, how beautiful they are !
It is the union between the poet and the natural world that has been shattered and that has led to his feeling of lonliness. The passion of life has been dried up and the state of human life is that of despondence, not worth living. Same feeling would be found in Frost’s Acquainted with the Night. What it causes is an estrangement from some source which adds to the vitality and vigour of ‘human life. Devoid of vitality, human life seems to float on the surface without any basis. Meaninglessness becomes, thus, the catchphrase of such a life.

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Pritha Chakraborty said...

Ooo!!!! What a fantastic article...I'm got amazed..thanks a lot..

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