“Poetry just isn’t for me

Please allow me to pre-empt any of you who are thinking, “Poetry just isn’t for me” or “I don’t get poetry.” Have you ever had a favorite song? And did that song happen to have any lyrics? If so, you “get” poetry. Full stop. A song with lyrics is just a poem set to music. You do happen to appreciate poetry, but you may just know the poems as songs instead. If there is a particular lyric that stands out for you in the song, or a particular word, or a particular way in which the singer sings this word, you are already performing analysis, dissecting the song into its components. If you can recognize a refrain in a song, or pay attention to the way certain words may rhyme, you are already beginning to perform literary analysis. You do it naturally. I’m just going to give you more tools to take this analytical capacity further.

The thing about poetry is that it already contains music within it. Like music, poetry is organized according to specific principles. Anyone can speak about how a song makes them feel, but to analyze a song, you need to be trained in tone, pitch, key, rhythm, harmony, melody, and the system of notes. I am here to train you on the principles of poetry, and I expect your posts to reflect the work you have done learning these principles (as outlined in the Survival Guide of Literary Devices that I had uploaded to Blackboard). There is a rhythm to poetry, which can be analyzed by the way accented syllables are distributed across the lines. For example, take the following line from a Carly Simon song about moving on after a breakup with a guy she no longer respects:

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“I bet you think this song is about you.”

Just say it out loud and pay attention to which syllables you stress and which ones you don’t. Notice how the stress falls more or less on every other syllable in a rising meter (which means that the first syllable is unaccented, but the second one is accented). When you say it out loud, it sounds like this:

i BET you THINK this SONG is aBOUT you.

An iamb is a unit of sound in poetry composed of one unaccented syllable followed by an accented syllable. Therefore:

(i BET) = 1 iamb

(you THINK) = 1 iamb

(this SONG) = 1 iamb

Now it gets a bit tricky. We have one unaccented syllable followed by another unaccented syllable (is a), but these two unaccented syllables are followed by an accented one (BOUT) to pick up the rhythm again, and is then followed by an unaccented syllable (you).

Based on this analysis, we can say that this line is iambic (the most natural rhythm of the English language), with metric variation at the end of the line.

Okay. You might be thinking: so what? How does understanding the meter of this line inform our interpretation of it? How do we tie this observation back to the meaning? In an analysis, it’s not enough to just correctly identify the literary devices at work. You need to explain what the significance is in the context of this work. One possible interpretation for the metric variation is that, if we continued the iambic meter, the final stress would belong to the word “you.” The fact that “you” is not stressed further underscores the tone of dismissal in this song, making the person addressed by the song (the “you” in this line) not as important as the song itself (especially since the word “song” is stressed). This contributes to an overall pattern in the rest of the song, whereby the person addressed by the pronoun “you” is put down. This is one possible interpretation, and this is what is meant by analysis using musical devices.

If you’re feeling a bit nervous about my expectations for your analysis, please go over the Survival Guide of Literary Devices that I uploaded to Blackboard. Normally I have all my students look up the terms. I was gracious enough to just give you the definitions. When reading any of these poems (and the poem you will eventually select for your Close Reading Assignment due next Monday), look to see if any of the devices on this list I gave you is present in the text. Again, it is not enough to correctly identify the devices at work. If they don’t contribute to your overall understanding of the poem, don’t mention them. You must explain what their specific significance is in the context of the poem you are analyzing.

It is important to understand that, during the Romantic era of the late eighteenth and early to mid-nineteenth century, innovations in music were exclusive to the upper classes. You would be incredibly lucky to get access to an orchestra performing an entire Beethoven symphony. Without any recording technology, the only way to spread this music was to send copies of the written musical notation, which would then have to be interpreted by anyone trained in music to then play it on their own. Poems, on the other hand, were much easier to disseminate, which is why they were the most popular art form of the time, and why the Romantic poets especially were the equivalent of rock star celebrities. You didn’t have to be rich to have access to poetry. Poems could easily be memorized and reproduced—you don’t need an orchestra, you don’t need an ensemble, you don’t need anything except the words, either written or spoken. So it is through this popular art form that the Romantic poets were able to reach the masses and shape the consciousness of a new, young generation that wanted to distinguish themselves from their parents’ generation.

Something I want to stress about poetry is that when you see the word “I,” this is not necessarily the poet speaking. In poetic analysis, we distinguish between the poet and the speaker. This is one of the reasons why I assigned Emily Dickinson’s poem, “I heard a Fly buzz—when I died—.” Pay attention to what is going on with the “I” here. The speaker here occupies an impossible space, a vantage point that doesn’t exist (how can anyone write about an experience after they had died?). This is obviously not Dickinson herself speaking here, but a created, imaginary speaker. And notice what the speaker’s attention is on: rather than focusing on their own death, the attention locks on a fly buzzing around, possibly (and morbidly) suggesting that the experience of death itself is as mundane and unimportant as the experience of listening to a fly buzz around a room.

“THE SICK ROSE”

You may be wondering: what on earth is there to say about such a short poem, consisting of just two stanzas with four lines each? Let me walk you through how you can write an entire essay on this.

Don’t forget the lesson I’ve just given you that these poems are musical works. You have to listen to them. Read them out loud. Listen to them being recited. What is the metric pattern you notice in just the first line?

“O Rose, thou art sick.”

Here’s the first observation: every single word here is monosyllabic. Go over your Survival Guide of Literary Devices handout from Blackboard. Ask yourself: is it iambic? Is it trochaic? Is it anapestic? Is it dactylic?

The answer is: it’s none of these. This is the only line of English Romantic poetry that abides by this curious and rare kind of meter: every single word here—and therefore every single syllable—is stressed. So when you say it loud, it sounds like this:

“O ROSE THOU ART SICK.”

This makes this line spondaic (one stressed syllable immediately followed by another). Ask yourself: under what conditions do we tend to use language like this—short, staccato words, one right after the other? Think of words like “stop,” “go,” “halt,” “no,” etc. There is an urgency to these words—the situation is so urgent that you don’t have time to communicate much more, with more complex language. There is something arresting about this halting rhythm. There is an emergency; something is wrong (as designated by the very first word/letter/syllable). What is wrong? The rose is sick.

It is not clear from this line whether “Rose” is the name of a woman, or whether the speaker is addressing a flower. This ambiguity runs throughout the rest of this poem.

Now that I’ve alerted you how to listen to this poem, and what to listen for, now shift the attention in your senses from sound to sight. Look at the pattern of vowels: we start with the full roundedness of the “O,” repeated again in the next word “Rose,” and again in the word “thou,” but it seems to warp in the “a” of “art” and then constrict in the “i” of “sick,” as though Blake is painting a visual picture for you of the process of a rose going from full bloom to becoming a wilted flower, which is exactly what happens to roses when they get sick.

The next line breaks completely from the spondaic meter of the first line (it is difficult in English to keep up a spondaic rhythm, which is why it’s so rare). The two monosyllabic words of this line, “The” and “worm” frame the four-syllable word “invisible.” So there is an association now between the sickness of this rose and the worm. The worm is the agent of this sickness.

How does this worm operate? Pay attention. Not only is it “invisible,” but it “flies in the night / In the howling storm.” Stop right here. What is going on? Worms don’t fly. This should immediately alert you to the fact that Blake is using the word “worm” here figuratively. It stands for something else, so use the rest of the poem to try and figure out what could be going on here. This is a kind of phenomenon, an agent of sickness, that is active at night, and that is invisible. We get more information about this worm in the next stanza:

“Has found out thy bed

Of crimson joy:

And his dark secret love

Does thy life destroy.”

Now we know much more about this worm. For one thing, it is gendered (“his dark secret love”). And it comes to her, at night, invisibly, in “bed.” Of course, flowers occupy flowerbeds, but this “bed” could also refer to a bed on which a woman named Rose sleeps on. There is also a third possible interpretation. This is not just any bed, but “thy bed / Of crimson joy”—a location of pleasure, associated with the color crimson, a dark hue of red. This could possibly refer to a location not of place, but to her vulva, drawing attention to the pleasure she gets at night. But it is precisely from this pleasure that she has contracted this illness: “And his dark secret love / Does thy life destroy.” Go back now and re-read the last line of the first stanza. This worm travels at night “In the howling storm.” Storms don’t howl; animals do, and people can also simulate howling, especially in primal states. The auditory image of howling could possibly allude to the sounds of sexual passion. But the “joy” from this sexual passion—this “dark secret love”—is then rhymed with “destroy.” Notice how this is the only rhyme here, and it stands out not only because it’s the only rhyme, but because the rhyming words are a paradox. “Joy” is the opposite of “destroy,” but the rhyme—which equates words on an auditory level—brings these words into closer proximity with each other. The same act that gave her such joy also led to her destruction.

So yes, this is a poem about contracting venereal diseases. The “worm” is the disease itself, traveling invisibly by night and entering the bed. There are wormlike insects that also kill roses. Traditionally, jealousy has been conventionally imaged as a worm, so this could also be a poem about jealousy destroying love. The pollution of love may be as much psychological as physiological.

There could also be a political reading of this poem, too. England, from the time of the War of the Roses, referring to the rival families that competed for the English throne (1455-1485), was known as a rose. The rose then became a national symbol for the English. At the time that Blake is writing this, in 1794, the French Revolution had already entered the phase of the Reign of Terror. King Louis XVI had been beheaded, along with his wife Marie Antoinette, by the guillotine for public entertainment a year earlier. By 1794, the guillotine had been working almost every day, killing anyone who disagreed with the new government in place. This could be a warning that Blake, as an English poet, was giving to his own country: don’t be infected by the sickness coming out of the French Reign of Terror.

To further contextualize and historicize the imagery at work here, we know that Blake was well-versed in Shakespeare, and had read David Mallet and one of the earliest English novelists, Samuel Richardson. Here are some quotes from their works about the relationship between a rose and a worm:

  • Viola in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night (1602):

“She never told her love

But let concealment, like a worm i’ the bud,

Feed on her damask cheek” (II.iv.108-110).

  • David Mallet, “Margaret’s Ghost” (1724):

“But love has, like the canker worm,

Consum’d her early prime:

The rose grew pale, and left her cheek;

She dy’d before her time.”

  • Samuel Richardson, Clarissa (1748):

Clarissa tells Lovelace, “Thou pernicious caterpillar, that preyest upon the fair leaf of virgin fame, and poisonest those leaves which thou canst not devour! Thou eating canker-worm, that preyest upon the opening bud, and turnest the damask rose into livid yellowness!”

So Blake isn’t writing in a vacuum here. He is taking images that already have specific connotations based on the way they had been used in previous works of influential literature. His poem can be read as a work in dialogue with these other works.

And this is a dialogue that obviously does not end with Blake. Just have a look at how Georges Bataille wrote about flowers in the twentieth century, and the philosophers Slavoj Žižek, Simon Critchley, and Jamieson Webster write about them in the twenty-first century:

  • Georges Bataille, “The Language of Flowers” (1929):

“Even the most beautiful flowers are spoiled in their centers by hairy sexual organs. Thus the interior of a rose does not at all correspond to its exterior beauty; if one tears off all of the corolla’s petals, all that remains is a rather sordid tuft. […] Risen from the stench of manure pile – even though it seemed for a moment to have escaped in a flight of angelic and lyrical beauty – the flower seems to relapse abruptly into its original squalor: the most ideal is rapidly reduced to a wisp of aerial manure. For flowers do not age honestly like leaves, which lose nothing of their beauty after they have died; flowers wither like old dowagers, and they die ridiculously on stems that seemed to carry them to the clouds. It is impossible to exaggerate the tragicomic oppositions indicated in the course of this death-drama, endlessly played out between earth and sky, and it is evident that one can only paraphrase this laughable duel by introducing, not in a sentence, but more precisely as an ink stain, this nauseating banality: LOVE SMELLS LIKE DEATH.”

  • Slavoj Žižek, from an interview while he’s watering his tulips (2006):

“I think [flowers] are disgusting. Just imagine. Aren’t these some kind of, how do you call it, vagina dentata, dental vaginas threatening to swallow you? […] Are people aware what a horrible thing these flowers are? I mean, basically it’s an open invitation to all insects and bees, ‘Come and screw me,’ you know? I think that flowers should be forbidden to children.”

  • Simon Critchley & Jamieson Webster, Stay, Illusion!: The Hamlet Doctrine (2013):

“Freud, in fact, calls the book on dreams his botanical monograph, his houseplant, where a wish springs from the dream’s navel like a mushroom from its mycelium. Desire literally flowers. […] We give flowers not because we love, but because we want to fuck.”

I’m not asking any of you to agree with this—my job is to just to instruct you on the literary history that stems from, and has roots way past, Blake’s poem. Whether you agree or disagree, again, is beside the point for the purpose of a literary analysis. This is the history, and this is the way influential thinkers have conceived of these images.

Do you see how much information we’ve been able to generate by closely reading this poem, despite how short it is? I’m not expecting you to give such comprehensive readings, but pay close attention to the devices at work, and delve deeply into how they operate. You may be surprised at some of your own conclusions. It is impossible to skim any of these poems. You need to slow down; you need to read and re-read, paying closer and closer attention to the details at work. We are never done reading these poems.

“THE TYGER” AND “THE LAMB”

Let’s do another close reading. As with “The Sick Rose,” I will walk you through this close reading, and then expand the conversation to contextualize and historicize it. To be clear, I am not requiring you to do outside research (although if you do choose to do outside research, you must cite your sources, otherwise that will count as plagiarism). I am only requiring you to practice close reading.

I highly recommend reading these poems with a notebook at hand, just to chart your observations as you make them. You may not know what significance they have on a first reading, but that’s okay. Just jot them down anyway, and then see if any meaning comes from these observations upon several hours of reflection and re-reading.

One of the first observations we can make is the bizarre spelling of the word “Tyger” in the title. Even in Blake’s time, the standard spelling was already “tiger” with an “i,” not a “y.” So he’s clearly drawing our attention to this misspelling for some reason—perhaps as a gesture to make it seem more antiquated. Immediately it puts us in the mind of the past, of the origins of spelling, and perhaps even of origins full stop.

Now read the first stanza, which—like “The Sick Rose”—is composed of four lines. Read it out loud and pay close attention to the musical rhythm, and see if you can discern a pattern here:

Tyger Tyger, burning bright,

In the forests of the night;

What immortal hand or eye,

Could frame thy fearful symmetry?”

How do we pronounce this two-syllable word “Tyger” (or “tiger”)? We don’t say, “tiGER”; we stress the first syllable instead: “TIger.” I’m now going to re-write this stanza to attune you to the auditory flow of the lines, capitalizing the stressed syllables:

“TYger TYger BURNing BRIGHT,

IN the FORests OF the NIGHT;

WHAT imMORTal HAND or EYE,

Could FRAME thy FEARful SYMmetry?”

Because the two-syllable word “Tyger” stresses the first syllable and unstresses the second syllable, we call this a trochee. A trochee is the opposite of an iamb (which is one unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable). The word “college” is a trochee (you emphasize the first syllable, not the second); the word “about” is an iamb (you emphasize the second syllable, not the first).

Let’s look more closely at the first line, then:

Tyger = 1 trochee

Tyger = 1 trochee

Burning = 1 trochee

Bright = 1 stressed syllable.

The fact that there are 4 stressed syllables in this line that follow a trochaic pattern, we call this line trochaic tetrameter. Let’s see if this meter follows through on the next line:

In the = 1 trochee

Forest = 1 trochee

Of the = 1 trochee

Night = 1 stressed syllable

This is the same pattern. Let’s look at the line after that:

What im- = 1 trochee

-mortal = 1 trochee

Hand or = 1 trochee

Eye = 1 stressed syllable

This is the same pattern. It’s beginning to look like a safe bet that this whole poem is in trochaic tetrameter, but you need to do this exercise for every single line of the poem. Here’s why (just take a look at the last line in the stanza):

Could FRAME = 1 iamb

thy FEAR- = 1 iamb

-ful SYMmetry = 1 dactyl with an extra unstressed syllable

Any time that a poet establishes a particular pattern (in meter or figurative language or anything else) and then breaks that pattern means that the poet is drawing particular attention to this line; it stands out, so give it the attention that it’s clamoring for. There is a paradox here, because the word “symmetry” jumps out as the only dactyl in this iambic line after following three perfect lines of trochaic tetrameter. The word “symmetry” itself, then, breaks up the symmetry of the entire stanza. Therefore, the function of the word “symmetry” in this particular context undermines the meaning of this word. This interpretation is further underscored by the fact that this stanza seems to be arranged in rhymed couplets (“bright” rhymes with “night”), but “eye” just has a slant rhyme with “symmetry.” It is a forced rhyme. The word “symmetry” again breaks this pattern.

Now let’s go back over this stanza and try to paraphrase what’s going on here. There’s a question being asked, addressed to a tiger. Any poem addressed to something that cannot respond back (in language) is called an “ode.” This is an ode to a tiger, questioning its origins; what being could have created such a fearful creature, streaked with symmetrical lines on its body?

This pattern runs throughout the poem: we get a series of unanswered questions interrogating the divine origins of the tiger. Is it God that created the tiger, or is it some other kind of maker? This being is gendered “On what wings dare he aspire?” And this being creates the tiger with his “hand,” putting the force of his “shoulder” into the creation of the tiger as a work of “art” in the third stanza.

In the fourth stanza, we are clued into this maker’s tools to create the tiger: a “hammer,” a “chain,” a “furnace,” and an “anvil.” It would be too easy to say that this being that created the tiger is God; there is something else going on here, which is clarified by looking at how Blake created this poem. He himself used hammers to knock up the backs of copperplates that framed his poems, so this poem itself points our attention to the Blake’s own process of artistic creation, his own artistic genesis of creating the tiger, this tiger, the tiger of this poem. And we can hear the hammering noises built into the poem if we pay attention to the knocking trochaic rhythm, which could also simulate the tiger’s footfall.

Because a trochaic poem is so unusual in the English language—a language that often defaults to an iambic rhythm—he’s drawing our attention to its significance. A trochee is literally the reverse of an iamb. It is striking, knocking, hammering. And here Blake is giving us a vision of our origins, reversing our notion of “progress,” a notion that has failed us with the events of the French Revolution, so instead of looking toward the future, he is looking toward the past, beyond the historical past to the moment of creation itself, moving away from the disappointing world of humans to a world of animals and nature. And there is a symmetry between this divine creator and Blake himself, just as much as there is a symmetry between the eyes and stripes and legs of a tiger, and between the tiger itself and the fierce god that created it. When we get to the question, “Did he who made the Lamb make thee?” the answer is yes: according to the biblical narrative, God created both the lamb and the tiger, but the answer is also yes in a different sense. Blake created this poem called “The Tyger” but he also created another poem called “The Lamb.” So, in a purely artistic sense, yes, “he who made the Lamb” also made “thee,” the tiger.

The final stanza seems to be a repetition of the first stanza, so that both the first and last stanzas function as a kind of frame for the entire poem. This is fitting, since the word “frame” appears in the last line of both stanzas. But there is an important difference: whereas the first stanza ends with, “Could frame…” the last stanza ends with, “Dare frame…” What is the significance of swapping out “Could” with “Dare”?

Even though there are clearly biblical allusions here, it would be a mistake to say that Blake himself actually believed in God. He wrote a treatise called There is No Natural Religion, and in another work called All Religions are One, he wrote, “As all men are alike (tho’ infinitely various) so all Religions & as all similar have one source[.] The true Man is the source eh being the Poetic Genius.” This is exactly what seems to be going on in “The Tyger.” All creation seems to be animated and have meaning only to the extent that we can imagine it.

By the time Blake is writing, it had already been centuries since intellectuals began abandoning the idea of God in Europe. Ever since the Copernican turn, the movement in our understanding of the cosmos as a shift from geocentrism to heliocentrism in the 16th century, the Church was exposed as a merely political force to keep people suppressed. Artists and poets like Blake still used imagery from the Bible as a kind of shorthand, but that didn’t mean they believed in God at all. We even begin to see this doubt articulated in the late 16th century with writers like Shakespeare and Marlowe. Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake in 1600 for theorizing the multiverse, which theoretical physicists today accept as fact, but which went against Christian doctrine. The Church enforced its political presence through intimidation tactics, but increasingly intellectuals moved away from religion as a relic of the past.

So now there is a new crisis. Intellectuals moved away from faith and Church doctrine to embrace reason, ushering in the age of Enlightenment. But what happens now that the principles of reason are being hijacked to justify the guillotine? The Romantics did not turn back to the Church, so they were wrestling with what theoretical framework could allow them to make sense of the world, now that both faith and reason had failed them. Instead, they turned to the imagination and to poetic genius as an alternative to both faith and reason.

As a political response to the horror and ugliness of the guillotine as an emblem for all the disillusioned hopes of the French Revolution, the Romantics wrote a lot about beauty as a serious organizing principle of intellectual, emotional, and political life. But beyond beauty was another category, which the Romantics called “the sublime.” There is a long history of the sublime in literature, which can actually be traced back to the ancients, especially Longinus, but Kant actually wrote about the sublime in his third critique, The Critique of Judgment. Whereas the beautiful is a category of art and aesthetics, the sublime often occurs in nature, and refers to natural occurrences that are overwhelming to the human experience. It is a force that is both mesmerizing and terrifying, and it threatens to overwhelm your life. Just think of the thought of climbing Mount Everest and standing on its summit; the awe that one may feel in response to this mountain is something that is more than just beautiful. It is sublime specifically because of its capacity to threaten our life.

In A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful, the philosopher Edmund Burke wrote: “The sublime… comes upon us in the gloomy forest, and in the howling wilderness, in the form of the lion, the tiger, the panther, or rhinoceros.” He wrote this in 1757, and Blake did read him. It could be that Blake wrote this poem in 1794 as a specific response to Burke’s example of the sublime.

The sublime also functions as a way of displacing humans, of de-centering them in the world and of privileging natural landscape instead. This is what all these poems assigned for today have in common: instead of focusing on the human experience, the focal point instead is on a fly, a rose, a tiger, and a lamb.

Blake’s poems “The Tyger” and “The Lamb” belong to a collection of poems he published as The Songs of Innocence and Experience. “The Lamb” belongs to “The Songs of Innocence” and “The Tyger” belongs to “The Songs of Experience.” They should be read together as counterparts of the same work.

The structure of “The Lamb” is altogether different, composed of two long stanzas, the first one posing questions and the second one providing answers, as in a church catechism or litany. Unlike “The Tyger,” there is perfect rhyme here. And we also cover the same material about the creator of things. In the Gospel of John, Christ is identified as both the Lamb of God (John 1:29) and the “good shepherd” (John 10:11), which seems to be a paradox. How can you be both a lamb and a shepherd of lambs? But Christianity itself is based on a paradox: how can Jesus be both the son of God and also be God himself? So Christ here functions as a creator, as the speaker of this poem, and the poem itself (based on the title). But, as with “The Tyger,” Blake too competes for Christ’s role in this poem. He is also the creator of this poem, and he implicates us in its creation. We attend to the text, in close reading, as a shepherd to his flock. Therefore, the poet and the reader share an active role in the composition of the text, as when the reader is called on to supply the missing verbs (“to be” in the line “I a child & thou a lamb”). The rhymed couplets perform these intertwined identities by literally echoing them.

So now, using your Survival Guide of Literary Devices, please contribute analytical observations of your own about any of the poems assigned for today. Remember that you can’t just rehash what you see here, or what you see in your classmates’ posts. I want to see you building on this foundation to add something additional to the conversation, but keep the observations specific and anchored in the details of the poem(s) you are analyzing

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