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


Christina Rossetti – An Apple-Gathering

I was surprised to find that I really liked this poem – I tend to think of Rossetti’s poems as just blank lessons in morality with little humanity or interest or depth. This poem makes me wonder if I’ve misjudged her. Composed with the ring of an allegorical fable, An Apple-Gathering appears deceptively simple. Apart from the beautiful rural images, the poem gets its appeal from the fact that the vehicles and tenors that in a typical fable are fixed to each other, here are scrambled and seem to shift places. Consequently the basic pattern of cause and consequence that is intimated at the start is blurred and temporarily suspended. In the end the poem seems to reflect on simple misfortune, on relationships that turn bitter for no obvious reason, and the impossibility of morally accounting for the things that happen to us. Continue reading

S. T. Coleridge – Frost at Midnight

A poem that captures the meanderings of reflective thougt, this piece uses loose, prose-like but beautifully shaped blank verse. The poet considers nature, which in contrast with much romantic poetry shows elements that are less than ideal, even malignant. The silence of the winter night precipitates a reflection on death, and the sleeping child awakens the poet’s own childhood memories. The wandering thought suggested by these different ideas is elevated in the tidy, discrete stanzas of the poem, and offered as a way of life for the sleeping infant. The incredible beauty of the final stanza offers hope for the child but in its eery silence prevents us from forgetting the slow creep of death. 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

Matthew Arnold – Memorial Verses

Arnold’s poem expresses a fear that has a particular resonance with us today – the fear that the great age of poetry has finished and we are left in its wake. It elegizes three figures of Romantic poetry, Byron, Goethe and Wordsworth, three poets whose influence is felt strongly by Arnold. The poem serves as a manifesto for poetry, elucidating the qualities of Romantic poetry that appeal for Arnold. As well as a panegyric for Wordsworth, there is a sense in which the poem struggles against him, trying to lay to rest finally the ‘benumbing’ pressure of trying to live up to these mighty predecessors. Continue reading