Sir Walter Ralegh – Nature, that Washed her Hands in Milk

Assuming the narrative of a kind of creation myth of femininity, this poem has a clear undertone of reproach to a cold mistress in the ‘carpe diem’ vein. Qualities if ‘wantonness and wit’ are celebrated, with the carefree and capricious ‘Nature’ held up as a feminine ideal. Also stressed is the proximity of death and the inevitability of ageing, which conventionally encourage the mistress to seize the moment and the suitor. At the same time the poem almost undermines itself by so powerfully glorifying chaste purity; as so often in ‘carpe diem’ poetry we strike upon a complex layered masochism in the suitor who on one levels enjoys his suffering for an unreachable mistress. The speaker seems aware of this paradox, reflecting that Time ‘gives her love the lie’. Finally the poem appears to recognise idealised love as a self-deception yet still wills the subject to participate in the delusion. Continue reading


John Donne – A Hymn to God my God, in my Sickness

On first reading, John Donne poems often seem to be intellectual exercises, intricately crafted but yielding little emotion. It is only when we examine the imagery closely that we realise that behind the confident doctrine lies a soul that feels fear and doubt intensely, using the subtleties of his extended conceits to delineate his inner struggles. Such is the case in this poem, where an overt resolute confrontation with death masks a desperate fear and self-doubt. Donne grapples with his image of heaven, and questions implicitly his fate in the afterlife. The end of the poem offers the tone of resolution but gives us to believe that this inner struggle will continue. Continue reading

John Donne – The Relic

This poem is an exploration of the substance or essence of love – confronting the apparent irrationality of devotion but elevating it finally to the status of ‘miracle’. The poem also draws in ideas of religious devotion, gives voice to the poets own religious anxieties, and registers a frustration with the state of ‘love’ in the poet’s contemporary society. Continue reading

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.

Henry King – The Exequy

The poem takes the form of a lament for the speaker’s dead wife. We imagine ‘Exequy’  to be a variation on the word ‘Eulogy’ , and the style of the poem very much fits this genre. The iambic tetrameter couplet lines give a fast pace, while lots of enjambement and long sentances give a sense of almost hysterical grief, as if emotion is gushing out of the speaker just as the sense is bursting out of the formal structure. Irregular stanza lengths add to this effect, generally acting as verse-paragraphs with other occasional effects.

The poem attempts to capture a sense of grief through a number of images and conceits. The first stanza portrays the mourning speaker as a kind of automaton or else a low form of animal life – ‘almost blind’, he does not ‘live’ but instead ‘languishes out’. Instead of thinking or percieving he simply ‘computes’. This suggests something mechanical, with the paradox that unlike a machine or insect, the speaker’s inability to feel comes not from a lack of emotion but rather an overwhelmed and stunned emotional faculty.

Moving on from an image of blindness, the poet develops a conceit whereby the dead lover is represented by the light of ‘day’ (now overcast), and by association, the sun. In an image reminiscent of Donne’s Valediction Forbidding Mourning and The Ecstasy, the speaker now imagines himself as another celestial body, eclipsed from his ‘sun’ by the ‘earth’, a representation of mortality that has cut the lovers off from one another. Line 37 at the end of the stanza draws on the idea that strange astronomical events were seen as portents for misfortune or death, returning us in an elegant circlee to the speaker’s own bereavement.

The transience of life and mortality are explores in striking terms where the speaker addresses the earth that has taken his lover, ‘meantime thou hast her, earth’. His suggestion that his bereavement might do ‘much good’ to the earth puts us in mind of a medicine or form of nourishment – as if her death, with an implicit comparison to Christ, has the power to redeem a fallen earth. The extreme physicality implyed in this image – that of nutrients from the dead body replenishing the earth – is striking in its willingness to break the normal boundaries of love poetry. This willingness to confront mortality is noticable throughout the poem, from the blunt opening line, ‘my dead saint’, to an implicit contemplation of suicide,

‘And follow thee with all the speed

Desire can make, or sorrows breed’.

This forms part of a second extended conceit, that of a pilgrim’s journey where the lover waits just out of sight, ‘beyond the vale’. This puts us in mind of the religious poetry of Herbert and Vaughen. The final image here, of the speaker’s pulse being a marching drum towards death, continues the incredibly visceral language used in the poem, whose overall effect is to remind us that death is never far away.

Consequently, another significant strand of the poem’s discourse is on religion. The dead lover is first characterized as a ‘saint’, with a ‘shrine’. This image draws on Catholic tradition to suggest an object worthy of veneration, and reflects the speaker’s assertion that the wife was near-perfect – saints allowing direct discourse with God. However, the ‘pligrim’ metephor owes more to the Protestant tradition of John Bunyan. This juxtaposition might suggest an underlying anxiety about the nature of God, and therefore the likelihood of salvation for the lover. In the light of this the poem might be seen as a plea to God on behalf of the dead woman, ending on an emphatic wish to be reunited with her in heaven.