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

Robert Herrick – The Hock Cart, or Harvest Home

This poem takes the form of a folk song, with couplets of iambic tetrameter contributing to the joyful, carnival mood with which the poem opens. Herrick’s rich evocation of rural English life aims to celebrate and justify feudal society – the political element of this poem shows Herrick as unmistakably royalist, writing around the civil-war period.Implicit in the scenes of pleasure and festivity is an affirmation of duty and a recognition of order and hierarchy.

The rich carnival atmosphere of the poem is underpinned by a string iambic pulse. ‘The horses, mares and frisking fillies’ has a fittingly ‘feminine’ unstressed ending, matching ‘fillies’, and lines such as this deviate from the meter to create a relaxed, sing-song voice. This line also shows the gentle sensuality and playful eroticism that runs through the poem – affirming rural people’s right to enjoyment and pleasure as a means of deflecting discontent. ‘We are the lords of wine and oil’ sounds like a challenge to authority, but reflects in reality the notion of lords of misrule’ – the topsyturvydom of festival days which are sanctioned and necessarily brief opportunities for anarchy. The poem also shows an enjoyment of traditional village customs, as some kiss the sheaves’, a challenge to puritan suppression of such traditions which were deemed unchristian and licentious. The extravagant plenty and richness of the harvest feast shows how the poet is attempting to idealize rural life – glossing over the hunger and hardship which were so prominent a part of feudal existence.

The poet makes explicit his political ideals in the poem. From the start he addresses himself to a lord, ‘Come forth, my lord, and see the cart’, implicitly endorsing social hierarchy. It is significant that the poem is dedicated to an Earl, clearly the sentiments expressed would have found favour with aristocracy. The ironic apostrophisation of a plow as the commonwealth’ is an explicit mockery of and challenge to the puritan ideas of republic. The poet suggests that a plow, which is owned and shared by the village, and so provides for everyone, is an equivalent to a form of pluralist government.

The poem affirms, alongside its celebration of rural festivities, the importance of order and duty. The feudal imperative to provide for your lord is cast in terms so as to make it seem an act of natural generosity and humanity on the part of the villagers. As harvest festival celebrates the provision of food from God, so the poet suggests that rural people should share this wealth, first with their cattle, ‘neat’, and then, in what is painted as a self-evident natural progression, with the ‘lord’. The tone is both a prayer of supplication to the villagers, elevated to the role of divine providers, ‘be mindful’, and informal and jovial, ‘And know besides, ye must revoke’. The inclusion of animals in this return to work, and the idea of summer’s ‘toil’ at the start of the poem makes labour seem a natural cycle or process, one that it would be wrong to change.

The final three lines of the poem are interesting and ambiguous in that they seem to cut into the idealized rural world of the rest of the poem by presenting the ‘pain’ of agricultural labour as something cyclical and inescapable. It can be seen as a show of sympathy and understanding in the poet, authenticating the rest of the poem by showing an awareness of reality. The poet ventures it with the hope that the rich festivities of the poem will be able to justify the pain of labour. The elegant pun reminds us that spring, while a time of hard agricultural labour, is also beautiful. Spring pain also brings to mind lambing season and the pain of childbirth, a further suggestion of the ‘commonwealth’ between humans, animals and earth, that all experience seasons of hardship and times of abundance.

This poem glorifies rural labour in pastoral imagery and singing verse, offering itself as a folk song for villagers at harvest time. By celebrating the excess and frivolity of festival days, it actually reaffirms the role of order and hierarchy in society. Where it gains an extra dimension is in the final lines, which recognise and seem to gently apologise for the fact that rural life isn’t all as rosy as the poem suggests.

Andrew Marvell – A Dialogue Between the Soul and Body

This poem addresses the dichotomy between a person’s Body and Soul, using strong, elegant rhetoric and vivid imagery. Soul and Body are portrayed in a state of mutual entrapment, both being subject to each other’s whims and needs. Marvell alters the conventional structure for poems dealing with this dichotomy by giving the final lines to the body, rather than the soul. The ambiguity in these lines ensures we are left without a clear sense of a victory for one side or the other.

The Soul’s incredibly visceral, visual self-portrait as a tortured prisoner in Stanza 1 provides an affecting introduction to its argument. The idea of the Soul strung out, ‘manacled in hands’ and ‘fettered’ by feet, is made even more stirring by sound effects in the line. The alliteration that links ‘bolts’ and ‘bones, ‘feet’ and ‘fettered’, and the repeated ‘an’ sound stressed in ‘manacles’ and ‘hands’, reflect the image described through thee idea of pairs – each part of the soul has an equivalent part of the body, which connects to it and fastens it down. The effect continues through the stanza with ‘blinded’ and ‘eye’, ‘deaf’ and ‘drumming’. The wonderful, graphic line ‘Of nerves, and arteries, and veins’ is fragmented by caesura into a symmetrical pattern of 1 foot, 2 feet, 1 foot – suggesting the entwining of strands of thread, or the rigid form of the body cutting up the shapeless soul. The stanza ends with a rhetorical flourish, demonstrating confidence and wit. The iambic tetrameter is altered by a spondaic substitution that emphasizes ‘vain head’. This pairs with ‘double heart’ to give a conclusion that sounds decisive and satisfying. The ending encourages us to unpick the meaning of ‘double heart’ – it implies both ‘excessive amounts’ – uncontrollable feeling, and being prone to changes of mood’, as in two-faced.

The Body’s lament of Stanza 2 takes a similar argument. The connotations that attach the word ‘tyrannic’ put in motion a whole set of images in the readers’ mind – political might and oppression, rebellion and violent punishment similar to the torture described in stanza 1. We notice throughout the poem that both entities use the same arguments against each other. On a deeper level there is a lack of clarity about which human traits are accountable to which part of the human. The meanings suggested by ‘double heart’ seem to reproach the Body for over-feeling – yet here in Stanza 2 the heat’ of passionate emotion is ascribed to the Soul, which ‘warms and moves this needless frame’. On a fundamental level, Marvell suggests that there is unity between these two seemingly opposite forces, such that their respective actions are inseparable form one another.

The final lines of Stanza 2 play on religious and superstitious imagery to demonstrate wit and mastery of rhetoric. Line 18 echoes but inverts the theological paradoxes found in devotional works of Herbert and Donne, which state that a person must die (in a spiritual sense) in order to live. Lines 19 and 20 portray the Body as a troubled spirit, forced to stalk the earth, ‘never rest’, as a result of being ‘possessed’ by a soul. There is irony in the fact that the soul is a person’s access to heaven, yet here it keeps the body grounded in a kind of purgatorial state. The transition to the third Stanza, with the Soul’s questioning of ‘magic’, goes almost unnoticed after the Body’s discussion of ‘spirits’ and being ‘possessed’. The fact that Soul and Body adopt one another’s images and manners of speaking is further suggestion that the two voices come from the same fundamental source.

The Soul’s ironic presentation of sickness in Stanza 3 pivots on the idea that the soul is on a journey to heaven – as seen in Marvell poems such as A Drop of Dew, the soul feels uncomfortable on earth. Therefore for the Soul every bodily sickness hurts double – first in sympathy for the pain of the body, and then in frustration after restored health ‘shipwrecks’ the Soul’s efforts to reach heaven through death. The body then twists the idea of sickness again, casting all emotions as forms of disease. The steady accumulation achieved through listing is strengthened by the lack of enjambement, maintaining the crisp rhetorical sound, and giving the effect of a doctor’s formal list of diagnoses. The resultant view of human life that emerges is as an impossible struggle against the pain of emotion, a siege of paradoxes and an inner battle between the elements of a person. It’s strange that such a chaotic picture should emerge from such ordered, controlled verse.

Even stranger is the enigmatic final image. Spoken by the body, it could describe the Soul (the ‘architect’) breaking and shaping the Body (the ‘tree’ or ‘forest’), in order to ‘build [it] up for sin’. Yet the intelligence suggested by ‘architect’, and the symmetry and beauty suggested by ‘square’, leave us with a sense of order and creation as well as brutality and destruction. The line could be read as a distillation of the process described by the rest of the poem – that by being subjected to the awkward contraries of life, a person is prepared for the building of something new.