Archive for March, 2009

Wordsworth: Some of his Poems

Although we will look at several of Wordsworth’s short, lyrical poetry, to fully understand his creative genius and the influence he has had on poets all the way up until today, you really should read his longer poems, such as Ode: Intimations of Mortality and The Prelude. Wordsworth creates what I would call a cartography of memory, the dynamics by which selfhood depends upon a reconciliation of the past, the present and the future. He uses his long poems to explore his individual emotional development, and to try to understand his self-hood in the context of time.

“I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud.”The following are questions aimed to provoke you into reading the poem closely.

1. Wordsworth uses a lot of figurative language: poetic devices meant to twist the usual meaning of words, such as metaphor, simile, personification, etc. Scan through the poem, and check off instances in which you find Wordsworth using language figuratively.

2. Ponder the first two lines of the poem, in which Wordsworth forms as simile: “I wandered lonely as a cloud / That floats on high o’er vales and hills.” How does the simile work? What does the poet suggest about his state of mind in that he wanders lonely like a cloud? Recall how we used Blake’s “The Sick Rose” to interpret the symbolism. Do the same here by thinking of the associations you can make to “cloud,” “floats,” etc.

3. What is significant about the “daffodils” the poet “wanders” upon? What figurative language does Wordsworth use when he describes the daffodils with such terms as “dancing,” “host,” “crowd”? What images do the daffodils conjure in your mind? What metaphor do you think Wordsworth forms with the vision of the stretch of daffodils?

4. Why do you think the poet comapres the daffodils to the stars and milky way? How does the simile in lines 7 – 8 emphasize and increase the importance of the daffodils?

5. After seeing the daffodils, why do you think the poet says, “I gazed–and gazed–but little thought / What wealth the show to me had brought”?

6. How is the final stanza of the poem very different from the preceding stanzas? Consider the poet’s location in line 1, and his location in line 19. What does the movement between the two locations in the poem say about the poet’s state of mind?

7. How has the vision of the daffodils affected the poet? Based upon the poet’s response to the daffodils by the end of the poem, what do you think they symbolize? Or think of it this way: what do the daffodils represent to the poet other than their amazing sight on his sojourn into nature?

“My Heart Leaps Up.”

This is a deceivingly simple poem. It is actually quite complex. What does the poet mean when he claims his “heart leaps up” when he sees “a rainbow’? Does it strike you as a bit dippy at first?  When in our life may the sight of a rainbow have made us “leap up”?  Do we “leap up” when we see a rainbow in the sky now?  What may have happened to our experience of seeing a rainbow in the intervening years of our life?

Look at line 3 -5. Each line begins with “So.” What effect does this have? What does each line represent? Look closely at the grammar and tense of each line.

How do you interpret the startling exclamation of line 6, “Or let me die!” Do you think that this is hyperbole (a poetic device in which a poet purposefully exaggerates, often for rhetorical reasons), or do you think Wordsworth cries out with sincerity?

How do you interpret the fairly cryptic line, “The Child is father of the Man”? What does this mean to you outside of the poem, and what does it mean in the context of the poem? If any of you have read King Lear, you may recall Edgar’s mysterious line concerning Lear, “He childed as I fathered.”

Finally, how do the final two lines create both the conclusion and the “frame” around the poem?  Think carefully about the words “wish,” “bound,” and the phrase, “natural piety.” In fact, look the word “bound” up in the dictionary.

Now, step back from the poem, and think about the rainbow once again. What does the rainbow symbolize?  (Again, think of all the things you can associate with a rainbow). Finally, what does the rainbow allude to. (Allusion is another figurative device in which a poet / author refers to another piece of literature.)

I have seen these types of daffodil fields in England, and they are quite spectacular.

I have seen these types of daffodil fields in England, and they are quite spectacular.


March 31, 2009 at 2:19 pm Leave a comment

Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Brief but Incredible Career

Like those music stars of the 1960s who went down the tubes or killed themselves by the early 1970s, Coleridge came on the scene in the late 1700s, wrote a handful of brilliant poems and some of the most influential literary criticism in British history, and then broke down completely from drug addiction by 1809.

As we discussed, Coleridge partnered with Wordsworth to write the groundbreaking Lyrical Ballds  in 1798. While Wordsworth dealt with rustic life (the natural), Coleridge dealt with dreams and visions (the supernatural). His biggest contribution, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” is simply one of the greatest romantic poems, if not one of the top twenty best in British history. When the collection of poems first came out, most audiences and critics thought the poem was a confusing mess. Indeed, the poem is brilliant because it seems to make sense as a narrative while it also seems to defy interpretation at the same time.

Coleridge wrote most of his poems in spells of intense labor. He was never a very disciplined poet, but perhaps in a true romantic vein, he would come up with a poem as if he had gone into a trance.

Coleridge and Drug Addiction.

Because of a childhood illness, Coleridge suffered from terrible back pain into his adult life. The medical prescription at the time was laudanum, which is opium dissolved in alcohol. Basically, morphine with a grain alcohol chaser! He quickly became addicted to the drug. Although he admits that the high would inspire much of is writing, by the early 1800s, he also began to admit that the drug was ruining both his creativity and his life. He took a two year retreat to Malta to try to recover, but while he was gone, his addiction only grew worse, and by the time he returned to England in 1806, he was pretty much physically and mentally destroyed. “Dejection: an Ode,” one of his later poems, expresses the despair of drug addiction.

It will always remain one of the most tantalizing hypothetical questions in British literature: what if Coleridge had been able to produce poetry and prose for the duration of his life instead of the six or seven years before drugs destroyed him? Needless to say, the handful of poems he left behind, combined with his magnum opus, Literary Biography, has made him one of the most central of romantic poets.

Coleridge the Intellectual

Of all the romantics, Coleridge was the most cerebral and the most Christian. He had an intense intellectual curiosity. In the late 1700s, Coleridge studied Kant and post-Kantian German philosophy atthe University of Gottingen. These studies influenced his own literary studies and criticism, which he brought to his lengthy Biographia Literari. This long piece of literary criticism and philosophy is at one moment brilliant, at others baffling, garbled and sometimes embarrassing. The brilliant moments (which are included in your book) still inspires many of our ideas concerning symbolism and the Imagination in literary criticism today. A great deal of the book, however, is almost unreadable, as it is evident that he wrote large portions of it stoned. He draws a great deal from German and French philosophy and theology, and at times he unabashedly steals the ideas of others.

Coleridge on the Central Power of the Imagination.

Central to Coleridge’s literary criticism is his romantic concepts concering the Imagination. Like the romantics to follow, Coleridge placed the role of the Imagination in a dominant position. He argued that the Imagination functions like a divine spark that urges one on to create. Further, the Imagination is bound to God’s creative act. Like Ralph Waldo Emerson, who would find romantic inspiration from Coleridge several decades later, the natural world around us is like a big canvas of God’s creation. Essentially, God is a great artist, and when we experience the world around us, His creation inspires the artist to create a representation of it.

But for Coleridge, making a representation of God’s creation is not

This is a wonderful book written by Dorthy Sayers in the 1920s in which she develops a literary criticism based upon the notion that artists and poets are like co-creators of Gods great and ongoing creation. It is a very interesting approach toward literary interpretation by basing reading and meaning upon Christian theology.

This is a wonderful book written by Dorthy Sayers in the 1920s in which she develops a literary criticism based upon the notion that artists and poets are like co-creators of God's great and ongoing creation. It is a very interesting approach toward literary interpretation by basing reading and meaning upon Christian theology.

just an act of imitation. Because we have an Imagination that can take in and break up our experience in the world as a means to create a personal expression, we are like co-creators, co-authors, in God’s divine and infinite creative act. Coleridge, therefore, inspires a great deal of the romantic notion that poets and artists are “gifted,” vested with a “vision,” and whose creations turn them into a “genius.”

March 31, 2009 at 1:38 pm Leave a comment

Questions for Thinking, Reading and Responding: Early Romanticism

Here are some questions that can guide you in reading William Blake, William Wordsworth and Robert Burns. You can respond to one or more in your journal, if you want. And you can use them to keep running ideas for possible paper topics.

William Blake.

1. How does Blake create contrasting experiences in the two poems, “The Lamb” and “The Tyger”?  What type of experience does each poem explore? How does Christian inquiry in “The Tyger” differ greatly from the Christian inquiries of “The Lamb”?  What might the lamb symbolize; accordingly, what might the “tyger” represent? Why do you think that “The Tyger” consists entirely of a series of questions?

2. How do the two “The Chimney Sweeper” poems contrast each other? Keep in  mind that child labor was an atrocity in eighteenth century London, particularly chimney sweeping. Children as young as three or four years old were literally “sold” by their parents into indentured servitude for the chimney sweeping industry because they were small and nimble enough to fit down the chimney. It was literally a life in hell for these children: and Blake, in both poems, uses the bowels of the chimney into which children had to descend as images of hell. The poem in The Songs of Innocence is particularly complex, even though Blake writes it like a children’s story. Look closely at both the voice in the poem and the narrative movement. Consider the dramatic situation. Although Blake depicts deeper religious issues via a wide-eyed childlike wonderment, what doctrines of Christian hope does Blake portray?

3. I put several of Blake’s illustrations that he did for the Songs of Innocence and Experience in the posting on Blake. How would you describe these illustrations?  Why might they be both fitting to and influential on romanticism?  How do the illustrations work with the poetry?

Robert Burns

1. What do you make of Burns’ style? the way in which he uses language?  the words themselves?  What do you think he is up to?  If one wanted to imitate a “dialect” in a poem today, what type of words and language do you think one could use?  Think of various different dialects, colloquialisms and slang in our country, like southern accents, Yankee slang, urban lingo, etc.

2. Describe the dramatic situation in “To a Mouse.” What “tragic” event occurs?  How does the farmer who caused the tragic event respond to it? The poet offers a fairly long subtitle to the poem. Why is it really important that the action in the poem takes place in November?  Why would the subject matter of the poem be less urgent if it were, say, June.

3. Although “To a Mouse” comes across as a folksy poem depicting a pretty trivial scenario, Burns cleverly allows deep and poignant issues to manifest that have been treated to even epic extents in poetry since the ancient Greeks. Look at the following  passage from the poem, and think about enduring life-themes it expresses.

But Mousie, thou art no thy-lane,

In proving foresight may be vain:

The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men

Gang aft agley,

An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ paiin

For promis’d joy!

4. “A Red, Red Rose” is really the lyrics to a song. Do you think it works on its own as a poem without the music? Do you feel that the poem holds up as a poem? Or do you think it is a bit mawkish, Hallmarky, hokey? If the poem is sappy, do you think that Burns is being intentionally so?  Does the sap–the cheesy-factor–veil something deeper?  Like the poem, “To a Mouse,” consider the dramatic situation of the poem.  What is happening or what may be about to happen?

March 25, 2009 at 9:27 pm Leave a comment

William Blake, the Visionary Poet. Songs of Innocence and Experience.


William Blake: a Visionary.

No poet of all the poets we will explore was quite as enigmatic, visionary and, well, far-out as William Blake. Although he ranks as one of the most important and influential of all romantic poets, he had very little (if any) contact with romantic poetry or philosophy. In fact, from a very early age, Blake felt that he had a “Divine Vision,” a spiritual calling which meant for him a life of isolation in which to pursue poetry and art. Throughout most of his life, his brilliant poetry and illustrations gained little, if any, public recognition, and he lived in loneliness and abject poverty. He is, in many respects, one of the first British individuals to choose writing and art as a profession, and, therefore, one of the first stereotypical “starving artists,” someone who sacrifices a social and material life for the sequestered life of creation.

Blake’s Creation of a Romantic Christian Epic.

Particularly in his later career, Blake’s poetry grows in tremendous length as he creates phantasmagorical epics in which he creates a byzantine and fantastic world that allegorizes Christianity, creating poetic narratives out of the Fall of Man, the Passion story, the struggle between good and evil. He follows in the shadow of his precursor, John Milton and Paradise Lost, the one great British Christian epic poem that you will have to suffer through some day if you are an English major. Blake, however, suffuses the Christian narrative with his own wild, visionary, allegorical and, quite often, bizarre poetry.

Blake as an Artist.

As you can see by my inclusion of some of his illustrations, no less important than his poetry was Blake’s art. In fact, the illustrations and prints that he created for all of his volumes of poetry are as influential on romanticism (if not more so) than his poetry itself. He created wild, swirling illustrations of angels, devils, scenes from the Bible and brilliantly colorful prints showing scenes form his own poems. These are truly incredible pieces of art. Blake’s poetry is meant to be read with their accompanying illustrations. Thankfully, your anthology includes a few of the illustrations along with the poems.

Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience.

The short poems you have read are from his two collections of poems, The Songs of Innocence and The Songs of Experience. Both books are companion pieces. Blake writes the poems in the former from the point of view of childlike innocense, and generally represent both a perspective that has not gained knowledge and experience concerning evil, i.e., poems that derive from experience before the Fall of Man and Original Sin. Blake writes poems in the latter from the point of view of adult experience in the world, or, more aptly, adulterated experience, the perspective from human experience with sin, i.e, poems that represent experience after the Fall of Man and when sin becomes wrapped up in life.

Generally, each poem in each collection has its analog in its opposite. In other words, a poem from the Songs of Innocense has its companion poem in the Songs of Experience. The most clear and famous example of this poetic dichotamy is “The Lamb” from Innocense, and “The Tyger” from Experience. Read the two side by side. Notice how the first mirrors a sort of nursery-rhyme voice of a child (of course, really, an adult creating the world as it might be seen by the child). “The Lamb” explores the Christian mystery of God’s unconditional love evidenced through Christ with complete and simple closure. All of the poems questions in stanza one are answered with Christian but child-like affirmation in the second stanza. “The Tyger,” from Experience, however, is a comparatively dark and terrifying experience. In contrast to the innocent cuddliness of the Lamb, and the sweet question-answer between the child and the lamb, the Tyger depicts a fiery, powerful and dangerous creature. Notice the evident imagery of fire, darkness and hell. Importantly, whereas “The Lamb” answers all of the questions posed, “The Tyger” consists entirely of unanswered questions. Of course, a majority of the theological questions posed in the poem do not have answers.

March 25, 2009 at 8:49 pm Leave a comment

Romanticism: a Brief Background

Romanticism does not Mean Literature about Love Affairs!

British romanticism is a literary movement that ran from roughly 1790 to 1830.  As I said, such dates as we reach literature of the past several centuries become a bit arbitrary, however. To say that romanticism ended in 1830 is fallacious–as I claimed in class, our literature in America, for instance, remains dominantly “romantic,” and we are, in many ways, heirs of a romantic tradition in not just literature, but politics and culture.

First, do not confuse the literary term “romantic” or “romanticism” with love stories, Harlequin romances, etc. Although love, as in any literary movement, is important in “romanticism,” the term means something much more different.

Brief Definition

Briefly, Romanticism is an intellectual orientation characterizing many works of literature, music, painting, architecture, criticism and historical work from the late 1700s into the mid 1800s. It is a rejection of the premises of reason, calm, order, rationality and general / abstract thought that epitomized the neoclassicism (or Age of Reason) of the 1700s. Romanticism, consequently, values subjectivity, individuality, irrationality, the Imagination, the personal, the emotional, the visionary, the spontaneous and the transcendental.

Edmund Burke and The Sublime and Beautiful.

One can see romanticism beginning to burgeon in the middle of 1700s. In fact, one of the greatest influences on the growth of romanticism came from one of the most staunch advocates of Reason in the Enlightenment, Edmund Burke. He wrote the famous, The Sublime and Beautiful, in which he argued that there are certain experiences for which Reason cannot understand or articulate. He described “sublime” experiences as anything we encounter in nature or within ourselves that leaves us in a state of awe, dread or terror, such as a great precipice, a giant waterfall, a terrible nightmare, an expansive stretch of the firmament. According to Burke, certain experiences overwhelm the ability of the mind to rationalize what we encounter. Some experiences leave us shocked or awed. Some experiences are simply irrational, or leave us in a “cloud of unknowing.”

Without intending to, Burke sparked a gigantic interest in all things sublime. In the late 1700s, artists become obsessed with painting great waterfalls, gigantic stretches of mountains, dangerous storms–anything that leaves the viewer feeling small, overwhelmed or terrified. As opposed to calm, ordered, rational subjects in literature, cliques of authors begin writing the first ghost stories, Gothic and horror fiction in which bizarre or irrational experience becomes the norm. Too, some artists, writers and musicians become interested in magic, the supernatural–the type of knight-errant “romances” that had not been practiced since the medieval/renaissance period in literature.

A great deal of this “pre-romantic” material before the 1790s, however, was sill not necessarily interested in the individual or emotional experience of the sublime.

The Development of Lyrical Poetry in 1780s and 90s; a.k.a “pre-romanticism.”

Although romanticism did not erupt as a revolutionary literary movement until the late 1790s, there were intimations of romanticism for a few decades prior to Wordsworth and Coleridge. I have already talked about the influence of Edmund Burke’s inquiry into sublimity. Some poets and prose writers in the 1750s began to gravitate toward a simpler, more sincere natural form of expression as opposed to the austerity, nobility and idealization of the neo-classical  writers. Poets such as Thomas Gray and William Collins began to write shorter lyrical poems concerning more folksy topics such as Gray’s ode about his cat, or Collins ruminations concerning the evening. In 1770, Oliver Goldsmith write “The Deserted Village,” a long poem that pined sentimentally about the lost charms of village life as urban culture begins to dominate certain suburbs of London, a theme that George Crabbe continued. Too, the “ballad,” a short, folksy narrative, started to gain popularity over the long, philosophical and abstract poem of the day.

The Age of Sentiment.

In drama in the mid to late 1700s, the sentimental play, where a playwright consciously produces what we would call today a “tear-jerker,” grows popular, and eventually leads into the ubiquitous Victorian novel that revolves around sentimental and melodramatic plots. Some scholars call the period from roughly the 1760s to the 1780s the Age of Sentiment. This refers to a particular literature that is self-consciously sentimental: designed to produce a “gentlemanly tear,” plots revolving around found and lost love, stories about long lost members of a family reuniting.

William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and the Lyrical Ballads.

British romanticism was launched with Wordsworth and Coleridge’s collection of poems, Lyrical Ballads in 1798.

Wordsworth is in many ways the father of British romanticism, and the major source of influence for almost all romanticism, including Shelley. But his influence is even more far reaching. He is the direct influence of America’s Walt Whitman in the 1800s, and poets such as Hart Crane, William Carlos Williams and Ginsberg in the 1900s. At the same time, Whitman is the major inspiration behind nature poetry all the way up until today.

Wordsworth the Rebel.

In many ways, his break with tradition and his rebellion against the Age of Reason derived from his educational experience at Cambridge. He found his entire college experience oppressively rational, logical, mathematical. After receiving his AB in 1791, he discovered that he had to escape the world of logic, mathematics and reason by essentially hitting the road. For a few years he took walking trips throughout England and Europe, living within nature, and trying to find a new perspective on life by essentially being a wayward nomad. Therefore, he begins the romantic tradition so prevalent today of going “on the road” (as Jack Kerouac would title it), of “dropping out” of society, a lifestyle that would become central to such figures as Walt Whitman and Bob Dylan.

Wordsworth’s Formation of a New Poetry of Personal Experience and Nature.

It was during his wayward experiences that Whitman began to cultivate a new vision for poetry as a response to the individual in isolation with the self and in communion with the natural world. He began to develop a poetry that explores the self as an individual in the world, and the self in contact with nature. Such poetry of isolation and self-hood is a radical departure from the poetry of the 1700s that remains focused upon the self within a society or civilization, in which poetry is the expression of philosophical ideas and the poet takes on the role as a public servant and spokesperson for a nation. Instead, Wordsworth come to explore and value a poetry that focuses upon personal experience, the individual attempting to understand him or her self as a unique self.

The Collaboration between Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

In the mid 1790s, Wordsworth became friends and a collaborator with the other major purveyor of romanticism, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and for a few years they wrote the collection of poems, Lyrical Ballads as a partnership.

They structured the collection around two different perspectives toward the world derived from individual experience: the natural world and the supernatural world. Wordsworth, whose interest always remained primarily nature, took on the natural world. Coleridge, who was interested in Christianity and theology, took on the supernatural world–the world of dreams, visions and altered mental states.

The collection, completed in 1798, was different from anything anyone in England had ever seen. Here were two poets in the age of Reason, science and rationality writing poems about flowers, trees, daydreams, moods, visions, hallucinations, drug trips (yes, Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan” is about his experience tripping on opium). For the most part, the collection was received by the public and critics as weird, outrageous, even pornographic.

Wordsworth’s Preface to Lyrical Ballads in 1802.

Since Wordsworth felt that the public misunderstood the collection, he composed a preface as a means to defend the poems. When an author writes a defense of his or her work, position or beliefs, it is a genre known as the “apology” (not meaning “I’m sorry,” by the way). Wordsworth’s Preface is one of the most important pieces of literary criticism for many reasons. For one, it is one of the first times in which an author or poet adds a preface to his or her own work, beginning a common tradition. Secondly, as a defense of his poems, it begins a prevalent modern tradition in which artists feel the need to argue for the centrality of literature in a growing scientific or industrial age. Thirdly, and most importantly, the Preface is essentially a manifesto for the Romantic movement in literature, where Wordsworth essentially lays out many of the precepts of romantic thought that remain prevalent up until today.

How the Preface Ended the Friendship between Coleridge and Wordsworth.

Significantly, his Preface is also important because of the rift it formed between him and Coleridge. Wordsworth wrote and published the new edition of the poems with the Preface without Coleridge’s permission, and on all subsequent printings of the poem, Coleridge’s name is dropped from the title. Additionally, Coleridge wrote in his critical works in the early 1800s many of Wordsworth’s points concerning romanticism with which he disagreed. For the most part, their partnership and friendship came to an end in the early 1800s.

March 24, 2009 at 6:23 pm Leave a comment

If You Are Feeling Overwhelemed By Writing.

Here are some tips if you are feeling overwhelmed with your writing.

1. By now you should have some focused topic / issue / problem you want to write about concerning a piece of literature. If you are having difficulty narrowing down your topic, please e-mail me what you are interested to write about, and I assure you I can help you.

2. As I have advocated, spend some time looking over the piece of literature on which you are writing. If it is Sir Gawain or The Canterbury Tales,  you want to find a few spots (maybe even one) on which you will focus your efforts. Find one, two, three (maybe four) passages, spots, events in the text that you can focus on. Use this spot or spots to quote in your paper, and curl your interpretation around them.

3. By focusing on an issue, problem, event, character, etc. you can expand your interpretation instead of being overwhelemed by material. For instance, suppose you were interested in the nature of SYMBOL in Sir Gawain, and you narrowed down your interest to a few moments in the text where Gawain does not recognize the symbolic significance of things around him. You could expand / digress on the nature of symbolic langauge / significance in our world today, and the dangers of ignoring or misinterpreting symbolism.

I’ll give you an example. I always write my own essays at the same time that you all are writing your essays–it’s my way of trying to stay on the same page with you all. Last week I wrote a five page essay on Sir Gawain’s symbolic ignorance–how he does not recognize the greenery around the Baron’s Castle that suddenly appears after he prays, and how he does not recognize the similarity of the game of exchange in the castle to the beheading game. After interpreting the consequences of symbolic ignorance, and how it tests the reader (in the funtion of dramatic irony) to perceive the world symbolically, I digressed on a contemporary example. Bankers and financiers in the past few months who have been blind to the symbolic nature of their actions. They were so surprised at the outrage of Americans when they bought private jets, or used TARP money to redecorate their offices, etc. It showed a lack of symbolic perception on their part, and I argued how such symbolic gestures today carry a great deal of weight in a manner not too disimilar to the symbolic nature of the world around Gawain.

Bottom line: by narrowing your focus, you give yourself room (breathing room) to expand in other areas in your paper.

4. When you are writing about a large piece, like Gawain, or the Canterbury Tales, it can become easy to start writing plot summary. We feel it incumbent upon ourselves to tell the professor what happens in a piece. We also feel like we’re proving that we’ve read and understood something if we write plot summary. The last thing a professor wants to read in a paper is plot summary. Seriously. Unless the assignment is to give a book report, plot summary is no good.

If you find yourself writing more than half a page of plot summary–giving a blow by blow of action–become self-conscious. Recognize that, for some reason, you are evading interpretation. Usually it is because you are encountering writer’s block, or you have hit a wall in where to go.

A handy way to get out of plot summary is to turn the plot summary you have written into interpretation. I’ll give an example using Gawain and the topic of symbolic language / ignorance again. Plot summary would be something like, “Gawain rides Gringolet in search of the Green Chapel. He encounters great hardship and bad weather along the way. At one point a blizzard stops him in his path and he nearly freezes to death. As he is dying, Gawain prays to Mother Mary to deliver him from death. After he prays, he discovers, to his surprise, that a castle has suddenly appeared, surrounded by greenery. He approaches the castle, and as he does so, the gatekeeper welcomes him warmly. He lowers the drawbridge, and Gawain enters the castle where the Baron greets him warmly, and he is hailed by everyone as a great and famous knight.”

Now, obviously this is plot summary, and you can find it anywhere–Cliff Notes, Spark Notes, the introduction in your own book. It does not lead to any interpretation. BUT, you could step back, and say to yourself, how can I turn this into analysis in the context of my argument? Here is what you might try to do, rewriting the plot summary to turn it into plot analysis.

“On Gawain’s perilous journey to find the Green Chapel, the many hardships he faces challenge him to understand the world on a symbolic level. Unfortunately, after Gawain prays to Mother Mary for deliverance, he fails to make the connection between the Green Knight and the evidently magical way in which a castle appears surrounded by that familiar color green. Additionally, Gawain fails to notice how warmly the inhabitants of the castle greet him despite the fact that he is dressed in full armor and bearing weapons. It should be clear to Gawain that his welcome is both unusual, and in a great contrast to the way in which the Green Knight was greeted at Camelot.”

Notice how instead of just giving a blow by blow of the action in the poem, I used the action and events to develop my argument.

5. If you do not feel like tackling a large piece, like Sir Gawain, and would like to write about something more focused, write a paper on one of the sonnets. A sonnet has a built-in focus because of its size and structure. As I lectured online, the poet explores within a focused and cosy space a metaphor in each sonnet that he develops from beginning in line one to line fourteen. By choosing to write about a sonnet, you could interpret how the poet develops a metaphor, how he uses language and imagery to develop and change the metaphor, what situation / issue the metaphor signifies, and you can expand on the issue that the poem explores.

The sonnet, I think, is a wonderful place in which to explore how to write an interpretive paper in English. In all the sonnets I assigned the poets use figurative language to the max. They are highly keen on creating metaphors, and using images and words to drive that metaphor toward an end. Also, each sonnet is like a little story, in a sense. A sonnet has an opening, usually the first four or so lines in which the metaphor/issue/problem/etc is introduced, the middle of the sonnet takes the metaphor into the “muddle” of the issue, and the last lines, usually a final couplet, brings it to a conclusion, one that is often surprising, or gives a “plot twist,” so to speak, to the subject matter, or affirms the feeling the poet raises.

For instance, in Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18, his famous “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” Shakespeare develops the metaphor of the summer in comparison to his lover. He even opens the sonnet asking how he will compare her to the summer. You could explore how the metaphor / image of “summer” develops in the sonnet. How his lover is always superior to the summer. And then how the comparisons become too hyperbolic: the poet claims that his lover outlasts the summer, that she and her beauty is immortal, in effect. But, of course, this is impossible. You would notice, however, that he changes the summer from a season to something else when he says 3/4 of way into the sonnet, “But thy eternal summer shall not fade.” Obviously, summer comes to mean something more metaphysical and spiritual. Then, in the last few lines comes the “plot twist.” He is able to immortalize his lover with the poem itself. The eternal summer becomes poetry. He turns his lover into poetry.

So you could take one sonnet and interpret the complex ways in which the poet uses language, words and figurative language to “pain a picture” of concepts he tries to express. It is a nice and focused way to hone your skills as an iterpreter.


March 9, 2009 at 8:47 pm Leave a comment

Spenser’s Sonnets: The Amoretti

Spenser’s sonnet cycle, The Amoretti, shares in most of the sonnet cycles in its subject matter: a poet wooing in every possible way a Lady. Yet, Spenser’s is somewhat different in that the Lady of the poem is not taken–it is not the classic courtly love narrative. She does play hard to get, so Spenser can engage in some of the courtly love motifs. The difference is that the sonnet cycle ends with the poet and the lady marrying. The final poem is an epithalmion, which is a poem in celebration of marriage.

Spenser’s sonnets are, well, sweet, in the somewhat lovely and simple way in which he presents a “verbal picture.” Each sonnet has a very clear, central metaphor that he develops. Therefore, his sonnets can be nice for close reading and interpreting for a paper.


The metaphor, or “picture,” in this sonnet is the poet as a book that his lover holds in her hands. Spenser uses the common motif of “the Book of Nature” that I discussed earlier with Sidney. The poet tells his lover that she can read him like an open book. Hence, as the first sonnet in the cycle, he is inaugurating his project as a poet, telling his lover that he is going to lay his heart open. At the same time, the metaphor of his lover holding him like a book also suggests that she “holds his life in her hands.”


In this sonnet, Spenser uses another metaphorical “picture.” This time, the picture the poet presents is himeslf as a ship lost at sea without his lover’s love. Without his lover, he has no “star, that wont with her bright ray/ Me to direct,” in other words, without her he has no guiding star, or north star. He has no compass to help him through “a storme.” By line 11, he utters words of “hope,” which is the important Protestant word in prayer. Meanwhile, as he hopes for her return, he must continue on, lost in a storm. Note also how we saw the image / metaphor of an individual lost at sea as far  back as Anglo-Saxon poetry.


In this sonnet, the “picture”/metaphor Spenser uses was a very popular one in the Renaissance, particularly with Shakespeare: the similarity of life to a play. The poet claims that he is like an actor on the stage, and his lover is like a spectator in the audience. The poet says that sometimes he plays a comic role, and sometimes he plays a tragic role. But his lover laughs when he plays the tragedian, and she mocks him when he plays the comedian. He ends wondering how on earth he could woo this woman if all of his performances fall flat. This sonnet obviously comes at a point in the sonnet cycle when the poet’s romancing of the Lady has reached a crisis, and there is the threat that the love affair will fail.


The central picture / metaphor is the Trinity. In Spenser’s Trinity, there are three women: his mother, Queen Elizabeth, and his Lover. Each corresponds to the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Yet, notice the tribute that Spenser makes to the Queen. She is, essentially, like God in that all three elements of the trinity are separate “persons” that unite to form the one true God. Far be it from me to claim to understand the Trinity, one of the most complex theological concepts. But it would appear the Spenser subscribes to the notion that one element of the Trinity “indwells” other elements, so that there are aspects of his mother in his lover, aspects of his lover in the Queen, etc etc. Importantly, as a Protestant, Spenser pays allegiance to both his Queen and the Church of England in the poem. Elizabeth is his monarch, but she is also the leader and mother of the Church of England. Perhaps this sonnet was his token or credit of allegiance, just in case anyone suspected otherwise. (Don’t want to be burned at the stake!)


The central picture / metaphor here is the poet writing love letters in the sand. The poem explores a very common Renaissance metaphor of the transitory nature of life. As hard as the poet tries to immortalize his love in the sand, the tide comes and washes it away, so that his efforts are “Vayne.” Yet, in the last quadrant of the sonnet, Spenser claims that the poems (this sonnet) that he writes will outlast him, his lover or anything else in his short life. The poem concludes on one of the most popular Renaissance themes concerning the mortality of the poet, but the immortality of the poem.

Bottom line: Spenser’s sonnets are wonderful little places in which to practice close readings and interpretation. I have always recommeneded his sonnets for writing a paper, because the metaphorical “picture” he uses and develops through each sonnet is clear, and each opens up particular issues one can expand upon beyond the sonnet.

March 8, 2009 at 3:27 pm Leave a comment

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