Dejection Near Naples by Percy Shelley

Guess who’s back. It’s me, and my man Percy Shelley.

What’s it about?

In this poem, Shelley is expressing an unusual disconnect from the natural world. Following the death of his daughter, he became solitary and withdrawn. In this poem he looks at the beauty of the world around him, and realises that it feels distant, strange and untouchable. He muses about the relief of death, and how his heart has been reshaped by circumstance.

Structure and form:

This is a lyric poem, meaning that it is a largely introspective account of personal feelings and sensations, told in the first person. Consider it a little like a diary entry. Shelley is allowing us right inside of his head. This poem is told in iambic tetrameter, meaning each line is 8 syllables or four feet. In the English language, it is most pleasing to the ear for a poem to be in pentameter, so here Shelley allows us to feel his sense of discomfort through the shortened lines. It sticks fairly closely to this rhythm throughout, mimicking the monotony of his life, and the repetitive nature of his depressing and intrusive thoughts. Also notice that each verse begins with an ABAB rhyme scheme, which breaks down in the latter half. This rhyme scheme has a typically jovial tone, but here instead it becomes a driving force to the poem, as Shelley tries to persist in spite of his depression.

Imagery:

Shelley creates a sense of dissociation through his contrasting imagery. The natural world that he describes is grounded in concrete nouns such as “earth” “shore” and “waves”,  visible things that tie him to his environment. He contrasts this with “transparent might”, “light dissolved”, “nor hope nor health”, vivid but abstract ideas that make the world appear like a corrupted dream-scape. Shelley no longer feels in harmony with nature, instead he is trapped in his depression, and cannot connect himself directly to the beauty of Naples.

These feelings of loss and despair are anchored by repeated use of negations. Each absence in his life is emphasised by a “nor”: “nor hope nor health, nor peace, nor calm, nor that content, nor fame, nor power, nor love, nor leisure.” This use of polysyndeton makes it laborious to read this stanza, allowing us to feel empathy for how laboured living now appears to Shelley. Polysyndetic lists place equal emphasis on each article, hence each missing thing is equally lost as the last. 

Notice the use of the condition tense:“death like sleep might steal on me” “I might feel in the warm air.” The  conditional suggests a hope or a future possibility, but not a definite. Shelley is clearly suicidal, but does not act on this. Instead he speculates about the possibility of death.The first stanza establishes a classic romantic landscape of beautiful nature, and he places himself within this, yet it is clear that he has lost his lust for life, shown again through the conditional suggestion that he ‘could lie down like a tired child’- this simile contradicts a lot of Romantic ideals about the beauty and purity of childhood, the idea of weariness and childhood are essentially oxymoronic. 

Context: 

Shelley wrote this on holiday in Naples with his wife. Their child had been ill on the journey, but Shelley had insisted on continuing. When she died, he blamed himself for her death, and never truly recovered from grief. His wife Mary also became reserved, hence in this poem he is alone, suffering his thoughts with no-one to share them with.

If you have any questions about anything english exam related, you can just drop me an email at englishlityear12@gmail.com. I’ll answer anything I can about the spec from both years of the course. Best of luck with all of your exams!!

Maria

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The Question – Revision Notes

The Question – Revision NotesPercy Shelley’s “The Question” is a complicated journey through the natural metaphors of Shelley’s mind. Ambiguity haunts us at every step of the journey, just as sorrow haunted every transitory or dreamt joy in Shelley’s life at the time.

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Sonnet on the Sea by John Keats

Let’s do some Keats, my favourite Romantic. We went to his house the other day, and found out that he was only 5 foot tall, if you like poetry trivia.

What’s it about?

Keats is considering the restorative power of nature, and it’s ability to cleanse the mind. He thinks that when we have spent too long in the city, the best way to cure ourselves from the bustle and noise is to spend time with the natural world. In this case, it’s the sea.

Structure:

As the title suggests, it’s a sonnet. But it’s not just any sonnet – it’s a Petrarchan sonnet, formed from an octave (abbaabba) and a sestet (ceddec). The change forms a sort of subtle volta, as it switches to a direct address, urging us to turn to nature for solace.  A sonnet is commonly a love poem, so consider this a love letter to the sea.

Imagery:

Keats loved mythology, which is why we see a lot of classical allusion in his poetry.  The “spell of Hecate” refers to the Greek goddess of witchcraft and the moon, suggesting the elusive divine power of the tides and water. The “sea nymphs” refer to divine creatures who inhabit the sea, though a nymph is typically associated with land. The clash of land and sea is similar to the division between city and countryside, despair and resolution.

Consonance of the double l sound. “ll” turns up at the end of a lot of words in this poem, “shell” “swell” “fell” “spell” to name a few. It creates a whispering, lulling effect, which mimics the steady flow of the waves.

“Gluts twice ten thousand caverns” – the idea of “glutting” personifies the sea as hungry and unrelenting, which contrasts with the idea of being “fed” too much with “cloying melody”, suggesting that the appetite of the sea itself is insatiable, but we by comparison are fall smaller and less powerful.

Context:

Keats unfortunately had a pretty sad life. He lost his close family to TB, and was separated from his fiancee when he contracted the same disease. He found a lot of solace in nature, and looked to the world around him for inspiration. Keats was always very aware of his own mortality, and tried to find comfort by recognizing how small he was compared to the ferocious natural world.

Maria x

 

To a Wreath of Snow by Emily Bronte

What’s it about?

This poem is written from the perspective of AG Almeda, one of Bronte’s Gondal characters. In the poem, she is speaking from a prison cell, looking out at the snow beyond, and imagining a better life than the one she is leading. She uses the power of nature and her imagination to escape the reality of her situation. I think Wordsworth would approve.

Structure:

The poem is told in quatrains with an abab rhyme-scheme, perhaps suggesting the mundane nature of the speaker’s life, and the repetitive process of waking up in the cell. In the final stanza, Bronte uses a half rhyme “gone” and “tone”, failing to give us the sense of closure that we expect at the end. Arguably this change in pattern reflects a shift in the speaker’s mindset, as the presence of the snow provides a comfort that will subsist after it melts.

Imagery:

Bronte uses a lost of religious images in her poetry. Here the snow is described as a “transient voyager of heaven”, suggesting that it is divine, but fleeting.

“the talisman that dwelt in thee” – a talisman is typically an object like a necklace or ring, which is said to have magic powers. Here, Bronte likens the snow to something with magical properties, suggesting it acts as a charm the same way a precious jewel might.

Low frequency vowel sounds – “shut” “sun” “brow” “thou”, these words give the poem a subdued and lulling effect which contrasts with the happiness the speaker feels when they witness the snow, perhaps emphasizing the fact that they cannot touch it themselves.

“morning rose in mourning grey” – nice play on words here Emily. The morning has come, but so has mourning as a state, drawing a parallel between the repetition of rising each day and the depression it brings.

Apostrophe – the repetitive use of “O” in this poem shows a degree of reverence towards the snow. O is typically is used in an ode, to express a sense of love or gratitude. Here, the snow is at the receiving end, showing that even the simplest thing can be a source or strength of joy.

Context:

There’s a lot of speculation about what this poem is about. A G Almeda is a princess, and later queen of Gondal, with a powerful but vaguely tyrannical character. I’m not certain what has put her in prison, but some people think that this is a really a metaphor for Bronte’s own situation. When her sister and closest friend Anne fell ill, Bronte was very isolated. We might interpret the prison to represent her own restricted life as the daughter of a clergyman, and the desire to escape.

Maria x

On This Day I Complete My Thirty-Sixth Year by Byron

What’s it about?

So, as we learn from the title, Byron is 36, which in Romantic terms is old. He’s decided that its a ripe time for him to die, and what better and more noble way to go than on the battle field in Greece? He writes this in Missolonghi, waiting to receive army orders, and lamenting the transience of life, love and beauty. What a nihilist.

Structure:

The poem is told in quatrains of varying line length. The final line of each stanza is always the shortest, and tends to end on an exclamatory tone. Some of the verses follow a loose abab rhyme scheme, but it is worth noting the use of half rhyme too, which suggests the slow decay of Byron as he anticipates his death.

The poem has an elegiac tone, as if he is preempting his own funeral. It switches between  downcast and celebratory, mirroring the conflict between liveliness and love and death and loneliness.

Imagery:

The use of triplets: “the worm, the canker and the grief.” “the hope, the fear, the jealous care” “the sword, the banner and the field”. These emphatic choices are at once lamenting and celebratory, emphasising Byron’s sense of fragility, which borders on a hysteria.

Images of fire: “the fire that on my boson plays, is lone as some volcanic isle.” We might interpret this to be a metaphor for sex, using fire to represent lost passion. This idea returns when he speaks of his “unworthy manhood”, which is perhaps his fighting spirit, or perhaps his penis.

Personification of Greece: “Awake! (not Greece – she is awake!) Byron revered the aesthetics of Greek culture, art and philosophy. Greece, to him, is awake in spirit, unlike himself, who is wearied by experience.

Use of the imperative: “tread” “seek” “give away” “awake”. There’s a lost of imperative verbs in this poem, as if Byron is trying to convince himself that his actions are correct. He seems caught between a desire to relive his youth, and one to give it away nobly.

Context:

This poem seems melodramatic, but Byron was actually right. He was about to die, but not in battle. A fever killed him before he ever got to fight. This is one of his last recorded poems, and a valuable insight into his mentality. The better days of his life were over, he had developed a gross infatuation for an underage boy who rightly did not reciprocate his attention, he was in declining health, and had drunk away his money.

 

 

So We’ll Go No More a Roving by Byron

Okay, so I was going to do another Wordsworth poem, but I haven’t had enough coffee. We’re doing Byron instead, because this is one of my favourite poems of all time. Let’s go

What’s it about?

There’s some divided interpretations of this poem. Some people think it’s about the end of Byron’s sexual adventures, while others think its about the end of a specific relationship. Personally, I like to think it’s addressed to one particular lover, but we have to keep an open mind here.

Structure:

The abab rhyme scheme creates a soft, lullaby-esque tone to the poem, which creates a sense of melancholy and reflection. The use of low vowel sounds in “roving” and “loving” creates a sense of whispered intimacy and longing.

Imagery:

“The moon still be as bright”. Typically the moon is personified as female, as a sign of fertility. Concurrently, Byron is suggesting he is now to old to be a suitable lover. Maybe he is making this contrast to emphasise his decline into old age (well, his thirties)

“Roving” This is a pretty key word, I probably should have started here. To rove tends to suggest journeying with no fixed end point, suggesting that his relationships have never had a final goal, but have simply played themselves out. This could lead us to believe that the poem is actually about settling for one lover, rather than many.

“The sword outwears its sheath” – if in doubt, it’s probably phallic. Byron wasn’t shy about his sexuality, so there’s no reason to believe that he isn’t talking about his penis here. Go on, say it in the exam.

“The night was made for loving and the day returns too soon” the contrast between night and day is interesting. The darkness of nighttime suggests that loving is meant to be hidden – perhaps Byron is referring to his relationship with other men, which would have been illegal at the time.

Context:

If the night was made for loving, loving was made for George Gordon Byron. He was the man of the hour, and men and women loved him. Bicon of his era.

Tintern Abbey by William Wordsworth

This is one of the longest poems, but don’t let that put you off. Once you get your head around the storyline, then it’s actually pretty simple.

What’s it about?

Wordsworth is concerned that time away from nature will damage his imagination and relationship with the world around him. In this poem he is thinking about the last time he came to Tintern Abbey, and how he felt at peace with nature. Upon returning, he realises that he cannot find the same connection he once had. He asks his sister (who has come with him) not to stray from her love of nature, as he worries that man is erring from it. 

Structure:

This poem doesn’t follow a typical structure, but instead appears more like a stream of consciousness. When there is a stanza break, it’s normally for a reason. Wordsworth skips between past and present self, reminiscing about his lost connection to nature.

Imagery:

Concrete nouns ground us in the scene he is describing ” cliff…sky…cottage…hedge rows…trees…woods.” The idyllic nature of the pastoral is emphasised particularly in the first stanza, stressing the presence of the natural world. In the second stanza, abstract nouns become more prominent, as he considers “sensations…mood…kindness…love…joy.”  The juxtaposition of the two types of noun mirrors the distance that Wordsworth feels from the place, and the disconnect between experience and emotions.

Imagery of childhood:

Wordsworth is obsessed with this. The “coarser pleasures of his boyish days” are gone, and he’s not taking it well. The Romantics believed that children were closer to god, and that childishness is the most divine state that we can find ourselves in. When he sees his “dear, dear sister”, whose mind “shall be a mansion for all lovely forms”, he realises that beauty isn’t lost to her yet, and that she retains the childlike purity he has lost.

Context:

Wordsworth saw man as disconnected from nature. Like Rousseau, he believed that our purity was lost when we left nature, and so he tries to forge a new connection with it in his poems. While he is known for being politicised, consider this poem as a more introspective account of the relationship between man and the natural world. This is very much a reflection of his own thoughts, which are then projected onto the wider topic.

The Tyger by William Blake

The Tyger is a pretty famous poem. It’s the sort of one that gets stuck in your head. Don’t blame me when you’re up at one am reciting it.

What’s it about?

There are multiple ways of interpreting this poem, and it’s fine to have your own ideas. Here are a few:

  • The tyger represents divinity and the power of God. Blake wonders how God’s abilities can be so plural – he can invent something as soft as a lamb and as fierce as a tiger. The poem intends to prove that the majesty of God cannot be matched.
  • The tyger represents art, and the power of creativity. Blake is using it to stress the almost godlike power of imagination, and the divine abilities of the artist.
  • The Tyger represents the fierce power of the industrial revolution, and the growing presence of industry.

Structure:

This poem is so memorable because it is told in a simply structure of quatrains with a trochaic structure. This places the emphasis on the first syllable of every foot rather than the second, which is uncommon in the english language. This is what gives the poem its driving force, as if the tyger is marching towards you. It’s also in rhyming couplets (aabb) which makes it relatively simple, but forceful.

Another thing worth noting about this poem is that most of the lines are actually catalectic. This means that they are missing a syllable to complete the foot. At the end of each stanza, there is a line of four feet, which is why the final line always creates a sense of closure.

Imagery:

Lexical cluster of fire “fire” “furnace” “burning”. This emphasises the power of the tyger, and it’s unmatchable force. In the line “the hand dare seize the fire”, Blake may be making reference to Prometheus, who steals fire from the gods to give to humans in greco-roman myth. Prometheus is also supposed to be the creator of man, so perhaps Blake is referring to divinity of the tiger, which can only come from a holy creator, while also encompassing this holy power itself

“dread” – this is a word with a double meaning. We probably associate it with fear, but in Blake’s time it also would have meant awe inspiring. So, god and nature are beautiful and powerful, but we should also look on them with a degree of fearful reverence.

“hammer” “furnace” “anvil” – this is where you can get your industrial revolution interpretation. Perhaps Blake thinks that humans are playing God by trying to be creators themselves, steering away from nature and religion? Or, is he using a metaphor to describe god, making him the craftsman and the blacksmith? Is this is positive image, marvelling at the power of human artistry?

“when the stars threw down their spears.” – some people think this poem is actually about a “tyger” constellation that was discovered in Blake’s time, and that he is actually marvelling at the beauty of space and heaven.

Context:

Some people link this poem to the Bible story of Job. Job was also in awe of God’s power, and had to learn to understand that as a human his understanding of it would also be minimal. The same idea is reflected in the Tyger, which questions how God can make both a tyger and a lamb. The cyclical structure reminds us that this question continues to be posed, and that the answer is intended to be beyond our understanding.
This poem is in Songs of Experience. It mimics “The Lamb” in Songs of Innocence. “Little Lamb who made thee / Dost thou know who made thee/Gave thee life & bid thee feed.” When looked at side by side, they seem to reveal the conflicting aspects of human nature: meekness and ferocity.

Maria

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Holy Thursday (Songs of Experience)

So, the other Holy Thursday. This one is a lot more explicit about what it’s trying to say than the other one, so hopefully it means less revision. In songs of Experience, Blake is basically just criticising all the ills of society. What a fun guy.

Structure:

The poem is variation of a ballad form, which is known as common metre. This is because it tells the tale of ordinary people. 

This poem has a fragmented rhyme scheme which contrasts with the other Holy Thursday. The first stanza is a/b/a/b, but this breaks down in the second stanza, which emphasises the exclamatory “It is a land of poverty” at the end of the stanza. 

The rhyme scheme begins to build up again to abcb in the final two stanzas. This creates an uncomfortable sense of closure at the end of the poem, as it comes to a natural finish, though we know the theme itself is not resolved. 

The interrogative mood is also used in this poem, where it wasn’t in the other. By asking rhetorical questions of the reader, Blake makes them feel complicit in the mistreatment of the poor.

Imagery:

Blake contrasts “a rich and fruitful land” with “misery” and “usurous”, reminding us that the world is plentiful but wealth is not divided fairly. The word “ursurous” pertains to the idea of lending someone money with a high interest rate. Suggesting that the children of London must work hard for nothing in return. 

“the sun does never shine/bleak and bare/eternal winter” Blake creates the image of a barren landscape, distorting ideas of the pleasant pastoral that the Romantics revered. Nothing can grow without light, hence the children cannot prosper.

“filled with thorns” Thorns were placed on Jesus’ head to mock him, perhaps Blake feels the rich are mocking the pain of the poor.

Context:

This poem de-constructs the surface level imagery of the other Holy Thursday poem, revealing the horror of poverty in London. Again, Blake uses the irony of a religious subject matter to highlight the opposite: a world devoid of morality and compassion

Maria

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Holy Thursday (Songs of Innocence)

Remember, there’s two Holy Thursday poems, so make sure you know which is which.

In this poem, Blake explores the innocence of London orphans, against the backdrop of the harsh London city. Though at surface level it appears that the poem explores the simplicity and angelic nature of the children, consider the idea that this may be used to highlight their exploitation.

Structure:

This poem is structured in a regular seven foot lines (heptameter), suggesting the ordered procession of children as they enter the church. Blake was very much against the very regimented social order of the time, so this might reflect its prevalence.

Imagery:

“Red and blue and green” contrasted with “grey beadles.” The children are lively and bright, they are the colours of nature and passion, showing that they are the future of the country. Concurrently, the beadles are aged and devoid of life.

“Multitudes of flowers” likening the children to flowers makes them appear fragile and innocent, but also beautiful. A multitude can mean a large group, but it can also suggest a mass with very little influence or power. Blake repeats this word, perhaps stressing that despite their number, the children are still weak.

“Radiance” we might associate this with god, a radiant beam of light. The children emit a holy glow.

“Multitudes of lambs” Lambs are typically seen as symbols of god, purity and rebirth.

“Harmonious thunderings” This simile to describe their singing is interesting because it is fairly oxymoronic. Perhaps Blake is suggesting that the unity of the youth has the power of a storm against corruption in society.

Context:

So what’s it all about? At this time, there were a lot of orphans in London from poor families who couldn’t afford to raise them. To avoid poverty, these children would enter charity schools. Though this sounds promising, these schools were often corrupt, sending young children into labour as chimney sweeps, and working them to the bone for very little in return. While the charity schools may have prided themselves on their religious values, they effectively turned against all Christian moral. Here Blake is criticising their squeaky clean façade.