Ode to a Nightingale by John Keats

What’s it about?

Keats is sitting in his garden, listening to a Nightingale sing. It has a numbing drowsy quality that sends him into a trance like state. Keats compares the Nightingale and himself, musing that its song is immortal, while he is fleeting and transient. Effectively this is a poem about many things: fragility, mortality, beauty, and the gap between reality and fiction.

Structure:

This is a regular ode, told in homo-strophic stanzas. This means that each stanza follows the same regular pattern, in this case ABABCDECDE. This very ordered form mimics the song of the nightingale in its fluid musicality, and also stresses the immortality of the bird’s beautiful song, which has been heard by others for hundreds of years. An ode is a poem of celebration, so here Keats is revering the beauty of the nightingale, a little like he might a lover.

Imagery and sound:

This poem is all about sound. Keats’ writing is dominated by sensory imagery, anchored by his choices of sound. The use of assonance on the “u” sound in the first stanza creates a lullaby-esque tone to the poem “dull” “drunk” “sunk” “numberless”, reflecting the sensation he feels as he listens to the bird. 

“On the viewless wings of poesy”. Poetry is Keats’ own way of escaping reality, he uses it to fly the same way that the bird can. At this point he enters the mythological world of his mind, a dream scape which is inhabited by the nightingale. The wings of poetry can’t be seen, but they can metaphorically fly Keats away from his aging and mortality, and a world where “youth grows spectre thin.” The image of a spectre, or a ghost, alludes to Keats fear of death, and the impending nature of his final days. By contrast, the bird “wast not born for death”, as even the Biblical Ruth would have heard it’s song.

In the final stanza the song stops, and he is woken from his reverie. The poem ends on the question “Was it a vision or a waking dream…Do I wake or sleep?” These final lines may suggest that Keats feels so overwhelmed he cannot believe that the song her heard could exist on the earth, and must be some kind of heavenly presence. To be honest, it’s a bit anti-climatic as an ending. The cheery tone disappears and the bird becomes a knavish “deceiving elf”. It’s back to reality for our man John.

Context:

Much of Keats’ life was shattered by illness and loss. Not only did he lose his family did TB, but suffered from it himself. He was consumed by a fear of death, and this preoccupation with mortality vs immortality is evident in contrast between him and the bird. This poem was written sitting under a tree in his garden, somewhere he would spend much of his time in quarantine in his final years.

Maria x

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The Cold Earth Slept Below by Percy Shelley

What’s it about?

This is a pretty complicated poem, and we’ll get to the reasons why in the context. Percy Shelley is writing about his late wife Harriet, who took her own life while pregnant with their child. In this poem, he is recalling her death against a dark landscape, drawing on very Gothic style.

Structure:

Structuring a poem couldn’t get more extra than this. If you look at the verses, Shelley is switching between all sorts of line lengths and patterns. The first two lines of each verse tend to be iambic trimeter, apart from in the final stanza, which has four feet at the beginning. This slows the pace in the final verse, creating a sense of closure and finality at the death.

Shelley also employs internal rhyme in the middle of each verse in a five foot line: “around…sound” “rest…breast” etc. These masculine rhymes have a harsh sound, which contrasts with the delicate subject matter at hand. These lines might be said to represent the closeness between speaker and subject, or even Harriet’s unborn child, carried inside of her the same way as the rhymes are enclosed in the line.

Imagery:

This poem has a very gothic sound, which is fitting when we are talking about themes of death and decay. If you examine the lexical choices in these poems, it emerges that death has an omnipresent role throughout: “chilling” “death” “black” “bare” “dying light” “yellowed” “raven” “bitter”.  Shelley’s choice of language proves that once death touches us, we begin to see it in everything. Even nature, which normally would be seen to transcend the fragility of humans becomes liable to collapse in this poem, as the hedges become “black” and the world enters a symbolic death like “sleep.”

Shelley also refers closely to the moon in the last stanza: “The moon made thy lips pale, beloved.” Typically, the moon is a symbol of womanhood and fertility, and knowing that his wife was pregnant at her suicide, we might interpret it to symbolise not just her death but the loss of an unborn child. His use of epithet here, “beloved”, is the only example of explicit tenderness in the poem, which is largely told through a detached, observing voice. In this final stanza, Shelley addresses Harriet directly, sharing a moment of closeness with her before she is gone forever.

Context:

So why is this poem a confusing one to talk about? Percy Shelley left his wife Harriet for his second wife Mary (who was like, 16). At the time, Harriet was pregnant with their child, and of course was devastated to be left alone. At this time, it was badly viewed for a mother to raise a child alone, so Percy left her in an incredibly compromising situation. Harriet wrote a heart-breaking letter explaining that she could no longer live with her depression, and committed suicide soon after. In effect, Shelley was responsible for her illness and her death, which does not frame him in a nice light, probably because he wasn’t a very nice man. When he died, Mary posthumously published his poems, but she didn’t want there to be any association between this one and Harriet’s death. It is believed that she changed the date of “The Cold Earth Slept Below” so that it seemed to be written a year before.

 

Maria x

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

x

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

“I always narrate the text”

In our emails and comments, the most common question at the moment is “how do I stop narrating the text in my essays?” Lots of people get told by their teachers that they are simply recounting the story rather than analyzing, and this can really knock your confidence. In reality, everyone has narrated a text at some point in their writing. It certainly doesn’t mean that you don’t have informed and critical understanding.

 

Analysis is all about digging underneath a word, phrase or structure. Imagine a box labelled “buttons.” Anyone can look at it and know that there are buttons inside. They won’t know what sort of buttons, or what size, or what colour unless they open the lid. Analysing a text is like lifting a lid on it.

Here’s an example:

“The first hapless victims of my unhallowed arts” – Frankenstein, Volume 1

Narrating the text is to tell us something that we can already decipher by having read the book. Eg. Shelley uses the word “victims” as William and Justine die because of Victor’s work. She uses “first” because Clerval and Elizabeth will also die.

Technically, this is correct, but it isn’t telling us about the purpose of Shelley’s writing. To get underneath a quote, you have to remember that the person marking your essay already knows what will happen to the characters. They want to know why you think we should take notice. So:

To exemplify the danger of Victor’s endeavours, Shelley likens Justine and William to “hapless victims”, suggesting they are paragons of innocence that are tainted by his evil. The choice of the word “unhallowed” emphasises the occult associations of his work, warning us that transgressing nature leads to destruction. Knowing that the two are only the “first” victims, the reader is left to speculate about how the story will escalate. Shelley encourages us to invest ourselves in the text by purposefully withholding information.

I hope this helps. As you can tell by my box analogy, explaining things concisely is not my skill. If you have any questions, you can drop an email and I’m happy to talk one-on-one.

Maria xx

 

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.