Month: September 2018

Chimney Mountain: My Tintern Abbey

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When we were talking about “Tintern Abbey” in class, and Prof. Oerlemans asked if anyone had an experience like Wordsworth’s, I couldn’t come up with any on the spot. After class, however, I started to reflect on some of my life experiences when I’ve felt similar to how the speaker does in the poem. One such experience was on my AA orientation trip last year. On the third day of our trip, my group hiked to the top of Chimney Mountain. The peak has this amazing chimney-like formation of rocks that overlooks the Indian Lake region of the Adirondacks and its surrounding mountains. Our trip leaders asked us all to go to separate places on the rock formation and to write letters to our future selves. I found an amazing spot to sit that had a little ledge so that when I was sitting, I could dangle my feet over the edge. The drop was incredibly steep, so it almost felt as if I was suspended in the air. In that moment, I felt both so powerful and so powerless. It is one of those moments when you feel like you’re on top of the world, but then you realize just how big the world is, and it makes you realize just how small you are in comparison. I honestly don’t know if I’ll ever be able to find a place that makes me feel quite that way again. Those moments while my group members and I were all writing our letters were some of the coolest moments of the trip, and I think I can understand Wordsworth’s happiness and excitement (thinking about all the ! in the poem) to come back to a place that made him feel so free.

If you want to see what the peak of Chimney Mountain looks like, you can look at this site:  https://www.outdoorproject.com/adventures/new-york/hikes/chimney-mountain

Here are some people at the top of Chimney Mountain doing what my group did, but you can’t see the full chimney formation in this photo. The source for the photo is: http://media.syracuse.com/post-standard/photo/2011/10/10142168-essay.jpg

Colour Imagery in “The Little Black Boy”

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While reading Blake’s “The Little Black Boy”, I was struck by Blake’s use of colour imagery. He uses the majority of it while the speaker recites his mother’s lesson, saying, “And these black bodies and this sun-burnt face / Is but a cloud, and like a shady grove.” This use of colour imagery, to me, gave value to the boy’s skin colour, as he is black because he receives God’s love. Yet, the use also has a negative side, as the boy cannot simply have dark skin; he has dark skin because he is shading the English boy – being used for the English boy’s benefit. The interpretation of the lines denoting the speaker’s skin colour can be taken either positively or negatively, acting as yet another example of how poetry is subjective.

What I was most stroke by were the mentions of silver and gold in the speaker’s descriptions, specifically the lines, “And round my golden tent like lambs rejoice.” and “And then I’ll stand and stroke his silver hair,”. As I analyzed the colour imagery, I kept coming back to these two lines. They are the only mention of metallic colours in the entire poem, and I took it to be an indirect way of saying that the English boy, and even people who are white, will never reach the level that God is, though they would act like Gods when treating their slaves, back in the 18th century when this poem was written.

Whether Blake intended this interpretation or not, I think it is a sly jab nonetheless.

The Destruction of Sennacherib

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When I was first looking through poems to pick one for recitation, “Sennacherib” stood out to me because of the way it depicts war. I admit I don’t have much empirical evidence, but I have the impression that war is often glorified in poetry (and also that the Industrial Revolution, mass media, and world wars brought about more negative depictions of war in poetry, but that’s not what this post is about). This makes sense, since poetry is often written for a public audience, and it’s more difficult to capture an audience with gloomy tales of death and violence than with stories about glory, heroism, and martyrdom. However, Byron’s poem is very bleak. It starts out promising, with an energetic charge of Assyrian soldiers, but by the end of the second stanza, the plague has hit and the glory of the army disappears. There’s imagery of foaming, dying horses, pale corpses of soldiers, and crying widows – all sad images you wouldn’t expect to be the focus of the story, especially not when it starts like a traditionally romanticized war poem.

In the final line of the poem, Byron reveals the punchline, if you will, of the story: that the plague, and all the death and suffering it created, was supposedly caused by God. This raises similar question about the motivation and goodness of God as “The Tyger.” Would God have “smiled their work to see” as they brought down the plague, or was it a work of necessity? Is it justified for God to have killed the Assyrians in such a brutal way? Would it have been worse if they let the opposing armies slaughter each other? (Maybe this is just a version of the Trolley Problem, where God interfering with the plague saves the lives of the people being attacked). Based on my limited knowledge of just one side of the conflict, I do not think this interference was justified, at least not the method. If the plague had actually been caused by God, surely they could have found a more humane way to stop the conflict than crippling disease. It surprises me a little that Byron portrayed the actions of God in this cruel way. I did a thorough* search about his religious beliefs and found this research, which says that Byron’s poetry portrayed him as fairly devout, though in an unconventional way. The final line of “Sennacherib” – “Hath melted like snow in the glance of the Lord!” – does seem reverent of God’s power. Maybe Byron intended this poem as commentary on others’ beliefs about God – or maybe he just didn’t see the problem with the plague at all, and this poem is actually glorifying war in a different way. I’m trending towards the latter, but I’ve jumped to enough conclusions in this post already.

One more interesting thing to note about this poem is Byron’s use of the ocean metaphor. The first stanza describes the Assyrian army as a “blue wave,” with spears like the stars on the sea. In the fourth stanza, he flips this metaphor around to mirror the shift in the battle, writing that the dying horses foam at the mouth (paralleling sea foam) like waves against a rocky shore.

 

*i.e. not thorough: I googled “Lord Byron religion” and clicked the first result.

A Slumber Did My Spirit Seal

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I think the speaker has a very unique way of remembering the “she” in this poem. The “slumber” that the speaker claims to be in is very relatable because numbing yourself to someone’s death is a very common thing. It also makes sense that he wants to remember the girl as when she was young and it seems that that is the possibly only way he can remember her since she probably died at a young age. However, the second stanza is more specific in describing how he thinks of her now and this is the part that is interesting. In lines 5 and 6 he says, “No motion has she now, no force;/ She neither hears nor sees;” to describe her existence now. This is unique to me because it seems as though he is only thinking about her physical body in this description. I would think that it would be sad to think about a lost loved one having no ability to move or hear or see. The speaker does seem to talk about her soul possibly being among the earth “with rocks, and stones, and trees,” but he doesn’t talk at all about the possibility of her existing in another world, such as heaven. This isn’t necessarily strange, but Wordsworth was a very religious man and the fact that he focused on her physical body is interesting.

A poem I wrote

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I didn’t share my sonnet on here when everyone else did, so I’ll share a poem that I just wrote for another class that has a few sonnet-esque qualities:

 

A Hot Dog Vendor to his Regular Customer

For decades, my cart has been here on this street.
I’m savvy, I’m seasoned, as much as my meat.
I’m quick when I grip ‘round the squeeze bottle’s neck.
I do not take Amex, please pay cash or check.

But sometimes the workday is shitty and sour,
Whenever the city is smoky and dour,
And all of the people just bustle on by,
Like roaches, they scurry and scuttle and fly
And they’d certainly never look me in the eye.

So whenever I manage to catch a stray gaze,
Through the car exhaust mixed with my griddle’s gray haze,
I make sure I say this, with my grill still ablaze:

“Nine dollar franks! Nine dollar dogs!
Line up and buy them, you rank, slimy hogs!”

 

I came up with the final couplet while free writing over the summer, and although I didn’t initially intend for it to end up in a poem, it was a good jumping-off point.

A few times in class people have brought up the idea that good poetry is “putting the best words in the best order,” but I don’t think that’s enough. Poetry frequently centers on a short list of topics: love, nature, poetry itself, etc. I have a hard time writing decent poetry about any one of these topics; even if I could put it in better words, I’ve already heard too much about that topic from other poetry for it to interest me. Instead of writing from sources of inspiration, I find it easier to begin from something about which I have no strong feelings, and developing opinions and tone as I write.

To be clear, I’m not giving advice, just sharing what helps me write. It’s a lot easier to get a fencing scholarship than a football scholarship; why compete with all the other love poets when you don’t have to?

Relevance of Geography in “A Description of a City Shower”

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In Jonathan Swift’s poem “A Description of a City Shower,” the speaker describes how the streets of London are filled with trash after a storm. Then, “They, as each torrent drives with rapid force, \ From Smithfield or St. Pulchre’s shape their course, \ And in huge confluence joined at Snow Hill ridge, \ Fall from the conduit prone to Holborn Bridge” (57-60). The mention of these specific London sites is not accidental. The two neighborhoods where the filth comes from, Smithfield and St. Pulchre’s, “…have each stronger associations with moral than with physical corruption” (O Hehir 204). Smithfield was infamous for hosting the annual Bartholomew Fair. Having originated in the year 1123, the fair “…was notorious for profligacy, insolent violation of the law, and obscene plays” (O Hehir 204). Although the area was probably literally filthy, the speaker mentions Smithfield because of its moral failings. The speaker also mentions the neighborhood of St. Pulchre’s. This refers to the area around St. Sepulchre’s Church. This church directly faced Newgate Prison, “…to which it was connected both spiritually and physically (a tunnel is thought at one time to have connected church and prison)” (O Hehir 204). The church bells would toll as prisoners who were sentenced to death would begin their march from Newgate to the gallows at Tyburn (O Hehir 204). The march that these prisoners took is exactly the same as the speaker’s description of the flow of filth: “from St. Pulchre’s down Snow Hill to its junction with Cock Lane and Cow Lane—the site of Holborn Conduit (taken down in 1746)—and thence to Holborn Bridge” (O Hehir 204). Again, the speaker is less concerned with physical garbage and more concerned with the moral corruption of London’s citizens.

 

Works Cited

Hehir, Brendan O. “Meaning of Swift’s ‘Description of a City Shower.’” ELH, vol. 27, no. 3, 1960, pp. 194–207. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/2871879.

a short, meaningful poem

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The first stanza of William Woodsworth’s “A Slumber Did My Spirit Seal” has an innocent outlook on reality because the speaker seems to be unaware of one’s transitory nature. The speaker “had no human fears” (2) and the woman I’m assuming he was in love with “could not feel the touch of earthly years,” (3-4) suggesting that they were almost like divine beings, untouched by humane characters such as fears and aging. The ignorance of mortality here could be to highlight their unworldly, naive love because ideally, love defeats time and space. In the second stanza, however, the speaker speaks with more awareness and realism; the woman is now dead. She has “no motion,” “no force, “and she is unable to hear or see. Here Woodsworth equates senses with life; this notion seems to be very important to Woodsworth because in the Tintern Abbey poem, sensing nature essentially preserves the speaker’s mind and soul, therefore, by losing one’s senses, one also loses their existence. The woman is now buried in “earth’s diurnal course,/With rocks, and stones, and trees,” (7-8) debunking the belief that the speaker in first stanza seemed to have; she is human and she, like all of us, must die and return to earth.

In comparison to the Tintern Abbey poem, “A Slumber Did My Spirit Seal” is significantly short, but it communicates the message of mortality well. This poem is very narrow yet compact, demonstrating that the length of one’s life does not necessarily mean the weight of their experience.

-URBANA

Nature According to Wordsworth and Thoreau

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In my class on environmental history we were assigned tonight to read some excerpts and brief biographical information about Henry David Thoreau. It was fascinating to read his opinions on the natural world (mostly from Walden) in conjunction with Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey.” Though both authors find themselves in positions of relative distance from society, Wordsworth amongst “steep and lofty cliffs,” while Thoreau lived in a small cabin in Concord, MA, they come to very different conclusions about the role of other humans within nature. Thoreau, it turns out, was a kind of a jerk, arrogantly critiquing man’s life of “quiet desperation.” Yet for Wordsworth, life seems far more optimistic. It was refreshing to read a poet who (particularly in contrast to Swift) saw human existence as a hopeful endeavor. In addition, for Wordsworth, nature reminds him of his sister Dorothy whom he loves. Though Thoreau isolated himself in the woods in an attempt to live righteously, Wordsworth seems to have found deeper meaning in human connection.

A Slumber Did My Spirit Seal

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What I really enjoyed about this poem is its use of minimalism. Think of an artist like Swift–the absurd and vivid caricatures he uses that find an intersection between the comic and grotesque, and now compare that to what Wordsworth is doing here. With Swift I almost feel as if I’m experiencing sensory overload; this poem insists on so much about life, death, and love with only two stanzas, eight lines, and few images. The last image, how the female persona in the poem (potentially Lucy, as Haley previously discussed), “Rolled round in earth’s diurnal course, / With rocks, and stones, and trees” seems so poignant and real to me because of its use of such simple language. I mean, the last line, for instance, is a fragment that could pretty easily be composed by an elementary schooler. But the artfulness of how the clause is used–and its emotional gravitas in this sentence–is the mark of someone who really knows their craft. I also think the shift from more saturated figurative language in the beginning of the poem (e.g. “a slumber did my spirit seal”) to the language of  “With rocks, and stones, and trees” is really well done. One last point: the caesuras in the last line–the use of commas that make us slow down when reading aloud as if slowing to the finality of death–is also really artful.

A Slumber Did My Spirit Seal

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After reading this short poem,I was curious if I could find any information that could expand my understanding of the poem. In my research I found that this poem is part of a collection of poems Wordsworth has written called the “Lucy Poems.” These poems are all about a woman (fictitious or real is debated) named Lucy who died during Wordsworth’s lifetime. Knowing this context greatly increased my understanding of the poem. With this information, this short poem becomes a poem that explored the idea of peace and death. Upon revisiting the poem you can see how it actually about Lucy’s death. The first stanza talks about how Lucy, addressed as “she”, is someone who is “untouched by earthly years.” When reading this for the first time, this seemed to convey a sense of peace that Lucy has. However, when reading the second stanza it is clear that the first stanza is talking about death. In the second stanza, the speaker expands upon what Lucy’s death means when he states, “No motion has she now, no force; / She neither hears nor sees;” Here, we can see that Lucy has died and thus she can’t hear nor see. If you revisit the first stanza, you can clearly see that speaker when stating Lucy is “untouched by earthly years” meant that because she is dead, time cannot affect her.

Without this context, this poems subject, “she” and therefore its meaning would be much more ambiguous. It would be much less clear that the poem is talking about death. Again, this is another example that knowing the context of a poem can greatly expand your understanding of it. Without knowing that this poem is about a women, real or metaphorical, much of the poems meaning would not be able to be conveyed to the reader. In doing so, this reveals the shortcomings of  new criticism.

Sources: https://www.enotes.com/homework-help/who-wordsworths-lucy-lucy-poems-318663

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Lucy_poems (This was the original source when I first learned about the Lucy poem’s, however I didn’t summarize or use the information on the actual site. Instead, I looked at the sources it referenced.)