Category Archives: Poetry

Shelley: “To A Skylark”

Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792 – 1822) was one of the major English Romantic poets, and is regarded as one the best and most influential lyric poets in the English language. Shelley wasn’t famous during his lifetime, but recognition of his poetry grew steadily after his death. He drowned in a storm on the Gulf of Spezia in his sailing boat, just before his 30th birthday.

Long ago as an undergraduate, I took a class in the Romantic poets, and memorized these few lines from “To a Skylark.” I don’t necessarily agree with them but they demonstrate, as does the rest of the poem, Shelley’s command of the language.

We look before and after,
And pine for what is not:
Our sincerest laughter
With some pain is fraught;
Our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought.

Yet if we could scorn
Hate, and pride, and fear;
If we were things born
Not to shed a tear,
I know not how thy joy we ever should come near.

We surely live in the past and future, and our joy is always tinged with sadness. But I disagree that the evil is necessary for good—a common claim. That claim exemplifies the idea of an adaptive preference. Since we can’t have our preference for unmitigated joy, we claim to prefer hate, pride, fear, and tears. But if we could rid of ourselves of those things, I think we would. Still, maybe I’m wrong. We do learn much from suffering. But then again, maybe what we learn is that suffering is not good and should be vanquished.

Brief Analysis of “‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers”

Emily Dickinson (1830 – 1886) was born in Amherst, Massachusetts. After studying at the Amherst Academy in her youth, she briefly attended the Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, before returning to her family home in Amherst. Dickinson never married, and most of her friendships depended entirely upon correspondence. She lived primarily as a recluse.

While Dickinson was a prolific poet, fewer than a dozen of her nearly 1,800 poems were published during her lifetime. Although her acquaintances were probably aware of her writing, it was not until after her death that her younger sister discovered Dickinson’s cache of poems. Today most experts consider Dickinson to be one of the greatest of all American poets. Here is one of my favorites.

“Hope” is the thing with feathers—
That perches in the soul—
And sings the tune without the words—
And never stops—at all—

And sweetest—in the Gale—is heard—
And sore must be the storm—
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm—

I’ve heard it in the chillest land—
And on the strangest Sea—
Yet, never, in Extremity,
It asked a crumb—of Me.

Analysis – Dickinson likens the concept of hope to a singing bird. Hope’s sound is sweetest during in the gale of despair, which itself feels sore by its battle with hope. Hope withstands cold and the unfamiliar, providing solace without asking for recompense. (My own views on hope are summarized here.)

Robert Frost: Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening

Robert Frost NYWTS.jpg

The first poem I ever committed to memory was Robert Frost’s, Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening. I first encountered it as a sophomore in high school almost 50 years ago, and I remember being moved by my teacher’s vocal rendition. I didn’t know then that I would still remember the poem so many years later. I now have less miles to go than I did in my youth, and the “dark and deep” are getting closer.

Robert Frost (1874 – 1963) was an American poet who is highly regarded for his realistic depictions of rural life and his command of American colloquial speech.[2] One of the most popular and critically respected American poets of the twentieth century,[3] Frost was honored frequently during his lifetime, receiving four Pulitzer Prizes for Poetry. He was also awarded the Congressional Gold Medal in 1960, and he read his poem “The Gift Outright” at the inauguration of President John F. Kennedy on January 20, 1961.

I have always enjoyed that the poem rhymes, as I generally find free verse harder to digest. As Frost famously remarked free verse was like “playing tennis without a net.” Frost himself called the poem “my best bid for remembrance”.[1]

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.
My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.
He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.
The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

Analysis of Tennyson’s “Tears Idle Tears”

Alfred Lord Tennyson is one of my favorite poets. I think that “Tears, Idle Tears” is his most moving poem about longing for a past that we can’t recapture, and the melancholy this elicits. The poem was inspired by a visit to Tintern Abbey in Monmouthshire, which was abandoned in 1536. (William Wordsworth’s poem “Tintern Abbey” was also inspired by this location.)

Tintern Abbey

While Tennyson’s visit may have prompted the poem, scholars think he must have had more in mind than just an abandoned abbey. His rejection by Rosa Baring and her family may have played a part in the sadness of the poem. Her family disapproved of her relationship with the son of an alcoholic clergyman. This may explain lines like, “kisses . . . by hopeless fancy feign’d/on lips that are for others” and “Deep as first love, and wild with all regret” which have little to do with Tintern Abbey. 

But whatever prompted these beautiful lyrics, all of us have looked out over a field, mountain or lake, an old school, home or neighborhood, or have simply been alone with one’s thoughts and felt the longing for the past which, in retrospect, was fleeting and ephemeral. What was so real then has now receded into oblivion, as will also the minds that have those rich memories.

Tears, idle tears, I know not what they mean,
Tears from the depth of some divine despair
Rise in the heart, and gather to the eyes,
In looking on the happy autumn-fields,
And thinking of the days that are no more.

Fresh as the first beam glittering on a sail,
That brings our friends up from the underworld,
Sad as the last which reddens over one
That sinks with all we love below the verge;
So sad, so fresh, the days that are no more.

Ah, sad and strange as in dark summer dawns
The earliest pipe of half-awaken’d birds
To dying ears, when unto dying eyes
The casement slowly grows a glimmering square;
So sad, so strange, the days that are no more.

Dear as remembered kisses after death,
And sweet as those by hopeless fancy feign’d
On lips that are for others; deep as love,
Deep as first love, and wild with all regret;
O Death in Life, the days that are no more!

Alfred Lord Tennyson 1869.jpg

Alfred Lord Tennyson

Analysis of W. D. Auden’s, “The Labyrinth”

W. H. Auden (1907 – 1973) was an Anglo-American poet, best known for poems such as “Funeral Blues,” “September 1, 1939,” “The Shield of Achilles,” “The Age of Anxiety,” and “For the Time Being” and “Horae Canonicae.” I have written previously about his poetry in my post, W. H. Auden’s: We Must Love One Another or Die. Recently a reader made me aware of another Auden poem, “The Labyrinth.” Here is this profound poem with some explanation and commentary at the end, so as not to break up the rhythm of the poem. (Anthropos apteros means wingless man.)

Anthropos apteros for days
Walked whistling round and round the Maze,
Relying happily upon
His temperment for getting on.

The hundredth time he sighted, though,
A bush he left an hour ago,
He halted where four alleys crossed,
And recognized that he was lost.

“Where am I?” Metaphysics says
No question can be asked unless
It has an answer, so I can
Assume this maze has got a plan.

If theologians are correct,
A Plan implies an Architect:
A God-built maze would be, I’m sure,
The Universe in minature.

Are data from the world of Sense,
In that case, valid evidence?
What in the universe I know
Can give directions how to go?

All Mathematics would suggest
A steady straight line as the best,
But left and right alternately
Is consonant with History.

Aesthetics, though, believes all Art
Intends to gratify the heart:
Rejecting disciplines like these,
Must I, then, go which way I please?

Such reasoning is only true
If we accept the classic view,
Which we have no right to assert,
According to the Introvert.

His absolute pre-supposition
Is – Man creates his own condition:
This maze was not divinely built,
But is secreted by my guilt.

The centre that I cannot find
Is known to my unconscious Mind;
I have no reason to despair
Because I am already there.

My problem is how not to will;
They move most quickly who stand still;
I’m only lost until I see
I’m lost because I want to be.

If this should fail, perhaps I should,
As certain educators would,
Content myself with the conclusion;
In theory there is no solution.

All statements about what I feel,
Like I-am-lost, are quite unreal:
My knowledge ends where it began;
A hedge is taller than a man.”

Anthropos apteros, perplexed
To know which turning to take next,
Looked up and wished he were a bird
To whom such doubts must seem absurd.

Stanza 1-2 [Anthopos apteros, literally “wingless man,” describes our earth-bound ignorance—we are lost within the maze of life. In the first stanza wingless man seems happy, but by the second stanza he realizes that he is existentially lost.]

Stanza 3-4 [Philosophers think the world might make sense; theologians seem sure it does.]

Stanza 4-7 [Science provides truth but not values; mathematics gives certainty but life does not; art gratifies but is subjective; so can I create my own answers?]

Stanza 8-9 [It seems that answers elude us; perhaps we are the problem; we are still lost.]

Stanza 10-11 [The answer, that we must accept our uncertainty, was within us all along. By accepting being lost, we find ourselves and we find peace.]

Stanza 12-13 [In the end we are still lost; and we cannot know the truth.]

Stanza 14 [We wish we had wings and could see things from a bird’s-eye view; that we knew more and could quell our doubts. Perhaps if we were different kinds of creatures we could.]

Disclaimer – When I took a modern poetry class as an undergraduate I quickly learned that poems are susceptible to interpretation. I learned that to one person, “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening,” was a poem about a physical environment, while to another a poem about suicide or sex. So I don’t offer the above as a definitive interpretation.