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

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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

Alfred, Lord Tennyson – Ask Me No More

This poem conveys a mood of deep melancholy and grief despite being reluctant to explicate a simple narrative or situation in which this passionate feeling is being felt. The poem can be seen as a plea to and for the speaker’s lover or friend on their death-bed, yet the picture is kept just out of focus, as if the exhortation of the title were intended to be extended to the reader as well. Through repetition we are made witness to the change in tone behind this phrase, from the resolution and coldness of the first stanza to a deep anguish and compassion in the last. The adapted sonnet form of the poem fits this dramatic shift in mood and the soul-searching that accompanies it.

A mood of bold defiance is conveyed in the opening lines with the imperative ‘Ask me no more’. The construction comparing tumultuous natural forces with the speaker’s maintained silence, ‘when have I answered thee?’, works on the idea that while the elements are subject to influence, the speaker’s resolution not to respond is unshakeable. The lines are given a Biblical cadence by the conditionals ‘may’ balanced against ‘but’ as in a psalm, as well as the idea of a ‘cloud’ reaching down from ‘heaven’. With the entrance of death into the poem at stanza 2 this will be reconfigured as an allusion to the death of Elijah or the ascension of Jesus, but here it simply demonstrates that storm clouds are shaped, and so influenced, by the land they pass over. The speaker’s exclamation ‘O too fond’ hangs unexplained in the stanza, but could apply to the speaker himself or the subject of the poem with a tone of admonishment. At this point in the poem the speaker might be rejecting an enamoured lover – he wants to distance and silence the person he is addressing.

The mood changes dramatically in the second stanza to one of grief and helplessness. The vulnerability and frailty conveyed by ‘what answer should I give?’ contrasts starkly with the firm coldness of stanza 1. ‘I love not the hollow cheek…’ attempts to explain this remoteness as a profound insight that sees beyond mere mortality, but the whole poem suddenly pivots on following word, ‘Yet’. This can be seen as the volta of this semi-sonnet, as the speaker allows the outpouring of his true emotion indicated by the exclamation mark at the end of the line. ‘O my friend’ counters ‘O too fond’ in the first stanza, turning that from a reproach towards the addressee, to a complex expression of self-admonishment, at having become too attached to the ‘hollow cheek and faded eye’ of a person that must inevitably die.

There is a bitter irony in the seeming command, ‘I will not have thee die!’, where the speaker tries desperately to imagine that it is in his hands to save the person he’s speaking to. The earlier mention of the moon that can ‘draw the sea’ is now retrospectively recast as an allusion to King Canute – the speaker’s command to death is as vain as trying to command the sea. A similar mismatch in tone can be found in the following line, where ‘lest I should bid thee live’ strikes us as a nonsensical threat. Just as the admonishing ‘too fond’ was turned back on the speaker, so the apparent threat of ‘lest’ towards the addressee implies a deep fear and consciousness of weakness in the speaker himself. It is not ‘lest I make the command to spare your life and it is enacted’, but rather ‘lest i make the command and it is not enacted, hence I am made palpably aware of my own frailty’. The final ‘Ask me no more’ has become, instead of an emphatic command, a fearful, compassionate plea.

Resignation and passionate love are the underpinning tones of the final stanza, as the speaker confronts the inevitability of death, ‘thy fate and mine are seal’d’. A return to the imagery of nature seen in stanza 1 shows the difference – where before the speaker held himself in contrast to the changes or nature, he now sees himself within it and subject to it, also recognises that although he ‘strove against the stream’, he was never actually outside the influence of mortality. Life’s passing is elevated beautifully in the image of the ‘great river’, and the passionate grief in ‘No more, dear love’ is touching. We see that his yielding’ refers both to the deathbed requests of his lover or friend, and to the ‘touch’ of death of itself, of which he now has a heightened consciousness.

This poem addresses the inner struggle to reconcile oneself with death and the fact of mortality. The speaker’s love for the person he addresses is movingly portrayed as breaking through the superficial coldness with which he attempts to evade the unalterable and inevitable approach of death.

Christina Rossetti – In an Artist’s Studio

A sonnet playfully interested in the subjectivity of beauty contrasted with the certainty of love, Rossetti addresses ideas linked to the proverb ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’. The artist’s studio becomes a metaphor for the mind of the devoted lover, filled with pictures of his beloved upon which he ‘feeds’. For the speaker, this muse is regarded with fondness and humour, seen in turns as a capricious child and an elegant maternal figure. This fondness is coupled with a recognition that the pictures are not a true likeness, perhaps in the penultimate line that the subject of the portraits has lost some of her youthful charm. The final line emphasizes, however, that for the ‘artist’ she remains unchanged, and he as devoted as always.

The opening lines of the sonnet see the artist’s muse filling the studio, given a vitality by the fact that all the action is hers, not the viewers’, she ‘looks out’, ‘sits or walks or leans’. Like a nymph in a pastoral comedy, she can be playfully everywhere at once, while line 3 makes her sound like a small child playing hide and seek. Her youthfulness fondly emphasized here might also contain suggestions of vanity, with line 5 seeing her as a lavishly dressed queen. The antithesis between 5 and 6 captures one of the main ideas in the poem, that love can perceive people in any way it likes, just as the artist can paint his muse in different settings and poses. The speaker conveys their endorsement of love’s subjective perception, ‘neither more nor less’ suggests a completeness and perfection in the artist’s love – the ‘one meaning’ of the portraits. The speaker points to the muse’s faults with humour and sympathy, just to show pleasure in the fact that they are invisible to the artist.

For him the woman in the portrait appears almost as a maternal figure, and he shows her something of a child’s devotion. ‘Feeds’ suggests the dependence of a newborn – the speaker’s fond amusement is applied to the ‘artist’ lover as well as his beloved. The simplicity of diction in the poem generally and especially in the monosyllables of line 10 strengthens the sincerity conveyed in ‘true kind eyes’. It is hard to tell whether we see the subject now from the speaker’s perspective or the artist’s. Primarily the latter, but ambiguity suggests to us another of the poem’s themes – that by witnessing love we are influenced and softened to a more idealized perception of that love’s object. So the muse now becomes a celestial being, likened to the moon with light suggesting divinity. She is an authority for the artist where for the speaker she was a child, yet the two viewpoints seem to blend in the latter part of the poem.

The poem offers us glimpses beyond its own discourse in lines 12 and 13. Line 12 implies what 13 explicates, that in reality this woman’s life is more complex and fraught than inferred by the paintings. It implies a larger narrative occurring over time: if the muse was ever once as she is represented, ‘waiting’ and ‘sorrow’ have now made her ‘hope’ ‘dim’. It gives the poem for a moment a beautiful elegiac note, that seems about to continue in the final line by the anaphora. Instead it is countered with an emphatic – though ambiguous – affirmation of her idealized representation and its continued presence in the artist’s mind. The operative word is ‘fills’: in present tense, it returns to the image of her omnipresence that we had in the first lines. For the artist certainly, she remains unchanged.

There is an ambivalence about how we are to view the artist’s love: as idealized and hopeful or as delusional and foolish. The issue of true likeness is played on by the mention of the mirror in line 4. It offers an authentic, honest representation of the painting, the irony being that the painting itself is not a true likeness but an idealized one. One of the themes of the poem brought out here is the difficulty or impossibility of viewing a person objectively, free from the influencing perspectives of others. It is the mirror that ‘gave back all her loveliness’, but the way the mirror circumvents the ‘screens’ to reach the painting behind seems to suggest that on some level this is the most profound, honest representation – the one hidden from the view of casual judgements. The final lines foreground the difficulty of seeing someone ‘as she is’ as opposed to in a ‘dream’, if there is a difference at all.

The overall mood of the poem is playfully fond, generously portraying both artist and subject as devoted and worthy of devotion. However the sonnet also provokes questions about the validity of love’s viewpoint and of beauty which it cannot answer.

Rudyard Kipling – Recessional

Kipling presents this celebration and encouragement of British imperialism in the form of a prayer, asking forgiveness for those who don’t acknowledge divine approval and assistance in Britain’s colonization efforts. The title reflects a duality of tone in the poem, suggesting ‘coming back’ – an act of remembrance and gratitude with the suggestion of a holy sacrament, and also the idea of ‘receding’ – anticipating the fading of Britain’s glory if, like ‘Nineveh’ we were to ‘forget’ that we acted under God’s authority.

The first stanza¬† is a statement of what Kipling perceives as the divine approval of Britain’s overseas mission. The anaphora of the first two lines sets the tone as an earnest plea, recognising heavenly authority over Britain’s battles. The repetition also contributes to the stirring, jingoistic tone at work throughout the poem in the refrain – reminding us of Newbolt’s Vitae Lampada and other atrocities.¬† It is interesting therefore that the message is not one of encouragement, but rather a stark warning with implicit chastisement. This element I believe makes for a poem of greater depth than most of the other ‘colonialist’ poets.

We can trace the Biblical imagery out of the first stanza and through to the end of the poem. Kipling assert’s Britain’s right to ‘Dominion’ by likening the nation to Adam in the Garden of Eden, with control over ‘plant and pine’. We might note that this allusion illuminates a fairly fundamental error in the colonial mindset, as Adam’s ‘dominion’ ends with animals and doesn’t include enslaving people groups. The reference to trees, along with capturing the vastness of the empire from snowy ‘pines’ to tropical ‘palms’, also anticipates the warning to come, by alluding to Adam’s fall. Just as Adam and Eve were tempted to fall by their ambition to become equal with God, Kipling believes the empire will collapse if Britain don’t acknowledge ‘whose awful Hand’ it is that guides them.

The next Biblical allusion is in ‘Nineveh and Tyre’, cities subject to God’s wrath in the Old Testament. In stanza 3 the poem’s warning becomes explicit, as the navies ‘melt away’, and the watch post fires are extinguished – Kipling presents a vision of the empire ‘receding’. The fire that ‘sinks’ might also suggest the fire of heavenly wrath, smiting heathens where they stand. The ‘pomp’ of Britain is shown as hollow and absurd when juxtaposed with the ruined civilizations of Nineveh and Tyre.

The fourth stanza takes us from Old Testament destruction to New Testament evangelism. ‘Wild tongues’ recalls the Book of Acts account of Pentecost, when the Apostles speak foreign languages through the Holy Spirit. That they might not ‘have Thee in awe’ inverts this, suggesting demonic incantations as an opposing possibility. Of course Kipling associates the ‘demonic’ with the uncivilised ‘lesser breeds’ of the world, therefore the argument develops to imply the barbarian world’s need for the ‘Law’ of Christian Britain. The final stanza reminds us that this is only possible if Britain ‘puts her trust’ in God.

Alongside this stirring affirmation of Britain’s imperial role in the world, Kipling betrays a doubt about the likelihood of ‘the task’s being carried to completion, and a general uneasiness about the future. We see the exposition of this in Stanza 2, which strikes us as very ambiguous following the certainty of the opening stanza. Why do ‘The Captains and the Kings depart’? Perhaps they have vanquished their enemies and moved on in glory, or perhaps, as the title suggests, they have given up and returned home. The suddenness with which the shouting ‘dies’ is striking on first reading – perhaps a sudden reversal of fortune in battle. ‘Far-called’ also contains within it this uneasiness. It recalls ‘far-flung’ in stanza 1, and might suggest the ‘calling’ of God to a divine purpose. However we might also see the insisted upon ‘Far’ as a suggestion of isolation rather than might – hinting at the navies’ weariness of the vast distances involved in imperialism.

The image of a headland and bay, receding armies and fire, brings to mind the similar picture in Matthew Arnold’s Dover Beach – another poem very much concerned with ‘receding’ and ‘forgetting’. In Kipling’s mind it is certainly not religion that is receding; in stanza an intimate, personal faith is the only thing left to cling on to on a deserted battlefield. However, Kipling does seriously contemplate the end of the British Empire. This poem being written just 15 years before the start of World War 1, perhaps he already has a sense of an impending change, the idea of men becoming ‘drunk with power’. Kipling’s refuge from this change, in stark opposition to Arnold, is religious faith itself. Hence the irrepressible Christian motifs and ideas, hence the earnest plea to his readers to mend their ways and recognise heavenly authority.

Considering Kipling’s reputation as a ‘jingo imperialist’, this poem – although elements of it are completely repulsive – contains a lot of subtlety. The author’s quivering faith in British superiority is almost able to inspire sympathy. The juxtaposition of crass propaganda and genuine feeling is a fascinating dynamic.