Month: August 2018

Reflection of Discussion Regarding the Douglas Tragedy

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When discussing The Douglas Tragedy in Friday’s class, ambiguities regarding the tone of the poem were raised. While the plot of the poem was one of a serious, romantic tragedy, someone in class pointed out the lines “I’ll gang, I’ll gang, Lord William,” She said, “For ye have left me no other guide” are funny, implying that the tone of this poem may have intended to be more comedic. Although there is no way of truly knowing the intention of the author(s) of this poem, I find the ambiguity in tone significant, as the readers interpretation of the ambiguity ultimately affects the purpose and meaning of the poem. If interpreted as a serious tragedy, I interpret the purpose of this poem, in the context of the time, to be a warning against going against your family’s wishes. However, if I interpret it as a comedy, the poem points out how men are committing bad actions while the woman have no power and can only watch. Therefore, its purpose is not as a warning but instead to shed light on the sexism in traditional romantic tragedies.

This ambiguity brings up a broader question about interpreting poetry. Is the intended meaning (by the author) of the poem the only valid one? As long as it is supported by evidence, can an unintended meaning or alternative interpretation of a poem be valid as well? I realize that as the intended meaning of The Douglas Tragedy is unknown, and as a result, both these interpretations are valid. Therefore, these questions are directed more towards poetry in which the intended meanings by the authors are more known.

“Poetry is good for you.”

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Our Wednesday class discussion ended with some skepticism around a particular statement: “Poetry is good for you.” Though I personally believe this statement to be true, in this blog post I will try to argue some points objectively that will hopefully convince you to also believe in this statement.

Turns out reading and/or listening to poetry stimulates the posterior cingulate cortex (PCC) and medial temporal lobes, which are parts of the brain involved with emotion formation and processing, learning, and memory. According to neuroimaging researches, PCC activity increases when you are self-referential processing something: you are essentially relating information from the external world to the self. You are “caught up” in the experience, which then evoke emotions, and emotions are often liked with learning and memory. In effect, the activity of the medial temporal lobes increases because now you are processing memories and associating them to your senses to create visuals. To cut to the chase, your brain is firing up and you are liking it because you are relating parts of yourself to something or someone.

Moreover, a NCBI research paper concluded from empirical studies that engagement in cognitively stimulating activities, such studying poetry, promotes cognitive health with aging. Needless to say, understanding poetry is not an easy task, so it makes sense that dissecting something as complex as poetry would incite intellectual growth. (And this goes back to the stimulation of PCC and medial temporal lobes because they are involved in processes of learning and memory.)

To conclude, if you want to keep a fresh mind, even when you are old and grumpy, your safe bet is on poetry.



The Three Ravens

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I found “The Three Ravens” to be a particularly difficult poem to deal with, not because it is dense, but because the content leaves me with many questions unanswered. Starting in the first stanza, the second (“Down a down, hay down, hay down”), fourth (“With a down”), and seventh (“With a down derry, derry, derry, down, down”) lines do not make a whole lot of sense.  In the sixth stanza, we are introduced to a “fallow doe” who inexplicably makes it past the fallen knight’s hounds and hawks, somehow lifts him up on her back, and even more incredibly is able to bury him, and then dies.

After doing some research, I have found some clarification. For the confusing lines in the opening stanza, Vernon Chatman believes that the second line can be taken as “Dejected all dejected, thou hast dejection, thou hast dejection” and the fourth line as “Utterly dejected.” For the seventh line, he offers the possibility that Derry, a city now known as Londonderry and a site of many battles in the Middle Ages, could be the setting of the poem. As for the “fallow doe,” Chatman writes that it was common for Irish clans to be named after animals; therefore, this doe could in fact be the knight’s lover or wife, being referred to as the name of their clan, which would fit in with the last line. However, he also offers the possibility that the doe is a hybrid of doe and woman. I actually like the latter explanation more. It fits in with the mythical and even sacred theme of this poem. The “doe” is able to easily make it through the barriers that guard the dead knight and also has a strong emotional connection with the knight as a human lover might (she kisses his wounds, buries him according to Catholic ritual, and is referred to as his lover). These are just possible answers to questions that are probably not meant to have a right answer.


Here is a link to the Chatman article:

The Color of a Tragedy

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Black, white, red: these colors tinge the atmosphere of “The Douglas Tragedy.” From the maidens’ fair skin and steed to the dark night and bloody cloak, they lend the verse a sense of both foreboding and familiarity. It reminds me of the original Brothers Grimm fairy tales, equally fantastic and twisted.

These colors, incidentally, are the same ones I was instructed to purchase as Conte crayons (slightly waxy pastels) for Drawing 104. Black, white, sanguine. Recently I unpeeled them from their plastic casing and made marks on newsprint. The next day in class we examined cave paintings in the same hues, tracing our artistic lineage thousands of years. For millennium we have been telling the same stories (ancient depictions of the hunt seem especially relevant to this ballad). At the root, I believe poetry and art are quite similar; they both are attempts at storytelling. They seek to name something correctly, whether through the language of words or the language of gesture. Within “The Douglas Tragedy” specifically, color is almost another character, a witness to the plight of Lord William and Lady Margret. The doomed lovers begin in light tones, atop horses of “milk-white” and “dapple grey” (9-10). Throughout the poem, however, these shades grow deeper until the pair is laid to rest beneath “a bonny red rose” and black briar (71).

How many of our society’s archetypal narratives are color-dependent? How has its usage changed since our first scribblings on stone?

Are William and Margret in love?

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True love, in its modern usage, is scarce; we desire “soul mates” who understand our complexities and share our viewpoints like no one else can. It arrives at the end of a long journey. It requires us to impress each other without putting on a performance. We are told that true love is impervious to erosion by time, or distance, or any of the impediments to our other relationships, and that any love that falls apart with time must not have been “true love.”

“The Douglas Tragedy” presents love differently. The love that Margret and William share isn’t rare at all; Margret admits this in line 27, stating, “True loves I can get many a ane.” Their love hasn’t been nurtured tenderly; the poem gives us the impression that William and Margret are recently acquainted. Maybe William courted her, and made a show of his status as a lord. Ultimately, their true love is severed, not only by their deaths, but by Margret’s father, Lord Douglas, who uproots William’s briar. This “true love” is a fleeting force that drives William to murder and embitters Lord Douglas. Maybe this is because lives were more uncertain when “The Douglas Tragedy” was written, and time couldn’t be wasted rooting around for the perfect match. Whatever the reason, it would be a stretch to call the relationship between Margret and William “true love” in the modern sense of the phrase.

Modern depictions of true love portray it as an eternal force, evident in Simon & Garfunkel’s adaptation of the Scottish ballad “Barbara Allen,” entitled “Barbriallen.” Like “The Douglas Tragedy,” “Barbriallen” features a rose and a briar sprouted from lovers’ graves, entwined in a “true love’s knot,” but it does not include a character like Lord Douglas, and implies that the protagonists’ love persists beyond the grave.

Modern ballads, like “Barbriallen,” solve their conflicts, and feature a love that cannot be broken, but there’s an argument to be made that real love is somewhere between “Barbriallen” and “The Douglas Tragedy.” Dismissing all fleeting loves as “untrue,” is a No true Scotsman situation.

The Contrasting Beauty and Tragedy in Anne Askew’s Ballad

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While reading Anne Askew’s “The Ballad Which Anne Askew Made and Sang When She was in Newgate” what really struck me was the beautiful craftsmanship and pleasing sound that contrasted Anne’s horrid story. Before even reading the poem, the reader knows of Anne’s fate, as the first footnote explains that the ballad was written while Anne was in prison and subject to torture and being burned at the stake. Thus, the reader begins the poem with a grim mindset; however, the ballad’s carefully crafted language, ABAB rhyme scheme, and Anne’s own strong faith provide a contrasting tone to the initial message. Even though the reader knows Anne’s premature death is merciless, the pleasant and powerful nature of her writing makes one continue to read.

I did a bit more research and learned Anne was a vocal and deeply passionate protestant who, after leaving her husband, went to London and became a preacher. Due to her societally unaccepted religious beliefs, she was subject to many sentences in jail and violently tortured prior to her death at the stake. However, Anne never renounced her beliefs. Her religious ideals are woven throughout the ballad explicitly and implicitly. She states how “faith shall be her shield” as she perseveres for her life and beliefs (4). Additionally, Anne believes that even when she is gone, Christ is on her side and “will take [her] part/And ease [her] of [her] woe” (19-20).

She concludes her poem stating “Yet lord I thee desire/For that they do to me,/Let them not taste the hire/Of their iniquity.” (53-56). Her Anne shows utmost courage by wishing her persecutors forgiveness. Without reading the footnote and knowing Anne’s fate, the ballad is both beautiful and expresses a powerful message. However, it becomes more powerful when considering Anne’s situation. Even though she knows of her imminent, unjust, and agonizing death, not only does she artfully compose her thoughts and arguments, she still shows mercy to those who are cruel towards her.

The Ballad

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In “Lord Randall,” I was really struck by the repetition (epistrophe) that the mother uses at the end of the first line of every stanza, as well as Lord Randall’s refrain (“For I’m wearied wi’ huntin’, and fain wad lie down) that ends every stanza. For me, these repetitions gain new semantic and sonic power as the drama of the exchange builds. The end of the poem, in which we discover that Lord Randal left his lover “hell and fire” (l. 39 of 40 ll.), reminds me of the volta (turn) of a Petrarchan sonnet, or the twist in a short story. For me, the revelation that his lover poisoned him imparts new meaning on the final repletion of “For I’m wearied wi’ huntin’, and fain wad lie down.” I’m guessing that not too many of the illiterate lower classes (who would have listened to and sung this poem) would have related to Lord Randall as he commands his mother around after hunting; however, perhaps they could more easily relate to the act of being poisoned by a lover—albeit in the allegorical sense of betrayal instead of literal poisoning.

In pop culture today, the love song often defines the ballad in the collective consciousness. If you search for “2000’s ballads” on google, you’ll get some variety of “love” songs by the likes of Christina Aguilera, Mariah Carey, and Beyoncé. It’s interesting to attempt to delineate what the boundaries of poetry are here. Is music poetry? Are some songs poetry and not others? The ballad was originally a form meant to be sung to music—and often intended to be consumed by an illiterate population—are there any possible parallels here to the modern “ballad”?