John Milton – How Soon Hath Time

The young Milton that speaks in this sonnet already bears the hallmarks of the solemn, passionate author oft Paradise Lost. This is a retrospective on the formative years of the poet’s life; a blend of intense self-reproach, anxiety about self-worth and a quiet faith in Divine will provide a stimulating glimpse of a man with a passionate sense of duty. Milton’s unique poetic power is conveyed in the crisp unity of imagery and sensitivity to pace and tension, allowing the reader to ‘fly on with full career’ towards the ambivalent final lines. Continue reading

William Cowper – The Castaway

This is a ballad with an unusual and distinctive subcurrent of introspection – a movement that is glimpsed at the start but surfaces fully in the final stanzas. The performative, distancing tone and perspective of the ballad form collapses and the terror and isolation of the striken sailor are traced to their source in the emotions of the speaker. This overwhelming sadness is all the more terrible for its namelessness, the profound personal loss that even to the end hides behind the allegory of the drowning sailor. One could read in this internalized ballad the heralding of the Romantic era and the cult of Self, yet the real ache of the poem is felt most strongly in the reticence it maintains to the end. Continue reading

William Shakespeare – Sonnet 33

With some wonderful imagery of landscape and nature, this sonnet projects the capricious Fate of men onto a picture of the sun’s influence over the earth. Shakespeare uses an allegory quite typical of his history plays in likening a man to the sun, and the language of the poem certainly contains echoes of that dramatic verse. Like a prism acting on a ray of light the final couplet reveals and scatters many potential meanings lying hidden in the preceding lines, with a daring pun on ‘heaven’s sun’ that probes at the nature of divine Providence. Continue reading

D. H. Lawrence – Bavarian Gentians

Turning the decorative and incidental into something all-consuming, the flowers the give this poem its name symbolise the passionate, uncontrollable essence of the human as Lawrence sees it. The darkness so prominent in the poem is at once the id, sex, death and madness – held together by their shared connection with the Classical myth of Persephone and Dis. It is an ethereal concoction of unstable forces which oppose the light – representative of hope, truth and goodness – offering an alluring, primeval guidance. Lawrence’s use of allusion seems to encourage a universal application of the poem’s ideas, with the flowers as a symbol for the human condition. Yet there is a deliberate, though problematic effort to eschew this generalization and present them as a personal symbol, a confession of the speaker’s own dark passions. This despite the consuming darkness in the imagery of the poem, that removes all distinctions and makes any notion of individuality impossible. Continue reading