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

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 Dryden – A Song for St. Cecilia’s Day

This is an ode to the emotive power of music, and presumably a commemoration of some event on this festival day of music’s patron saint. It re-imagines the Genesis account as an act of melodic conception, perhaps drawing on Milton’s famous invocation to Paradise Lost. The later stanzas can be seen to carry this Biblical metaphor through Christian history until the ‘Grand Chorus’ where music heralds the apocalypse. Intricate rhyme scheme and mirroring lines, together with varied line lengths create a frame and strive for a lyrical effect.

The opening stanza sees music as an aspect or incarnation of divinity in self-begetting genesis. The lyric, flowing rhythm of the first line with two ‘harmonizing’ dactyls at the end sets the tone – this ode has the grandeur of a hymn and the playfulness of a folk song. The ‘universal frame’ likens nature to an instrument that requires assembling – its constituent parts the elements, ‘cold, and hot, and moist, and dry’. Yet it is music itself, ‘the tuneful voice’ that sets in motion this genesis. Consequently music, personified with its own ‘power’ is seen as an expression of a self-begetting God. Nature then comes to represent the musical scale, which Dryden likens to the Chain of Being. Just as man is created on the final day of creation, so Dryden’s Genesis account ends in this stanza with mankind as the note which completes the scale.

Stanza structures throughout the poem are suggestive of the forms and frames of musical instruments. In the opening stanza the longer pentameter and tetrameter lines cut across the shorter to mimic the struts or strings on an organ or lute. The repeated line ‘From harmony, from heavenly harmony’ might represent the same note in a scale struck again. The second stanza certainly aims to mimic the completeness of the ‘compass of the notes’, returning to its opening line to suggest the circle of fifths or other mathematical sequences that were being applied in music at this time. Alternating line lengths also try to convey a lyrical feel, as much as is possible for an Augustan poet whose strength is in grandeur, solidity and rhetoric. The rich rhymes on ‘shell’ are not intrusive as they might be, but produce exactly this grand kind of effect which seems to work against the lyricism.

A major theme in the poem is music’s ability to play on human emotions, something reflected by Dryden’s sounding of various emotions as if they were notes in a scale. The range moves from anger and courage in stanza 3 to jealousy in 5 and worship in 6. Each is associated with an instrument, and Dryden’s word choices mimic the sound of each with varying success. The trumpet is evoked well by ‘clangor’, which has a resounding metallic sound but also warmth. The repetition of ‘double’ for the drum doesn’t quite come off, sounding out of place where two repetitions would have conveyed the message better – perhaps the line works once set to music. Music’s divine beginnings in Stanza 1 work to suggest that music not only inspires humanity but provides a link with heaven. This is suggested in stanza 7 with Cecelia’s summoning of an angel with the organ.

However, music is also seen as a force of destruction in the poem, fanning the flames of jealousy and heralding judgement. The ‘listening brethren’ that worship the music of Jubal need not be committing idolatry – they worship the same divine music that represents and is God in stanza 1. However, the suggestion that music’s power to manipulate can be abused is shown first here, ‘With the hollow of that shell / That spoke so sweetly and so well’. Of course shells do make a sound because they’re hollow, but the word also acts in its pejorative mode to suggest the seductive, misleading rhetoric of a politician. Likewise music inspires wars with the ‘thundering drum’, and the ‘pains’ of unrequited love. The poem gently and unobtrusively reminds us that when music is a human rather than divine tool, it can be misused. Hence finally in the Grand Chorus, the divine trumpet also brings about justice. The enjambment over ‘So, when the last and dreadful hour / This crumbling pageant shall devour’ creates a speed of delivery that echoes the cataclysmic ‘devouring’ of the world. The second line here seems to me to have a satirical bite to it – suggesting that elevated art and abstracts like music will outlive and shed unfavourable light on the ‘crumbling pageant’ of our lives. The final triplet is beautiful – echoing the cadence of Revelation and bringing us full circle to the ‘tuneful voice’ of stanza 1.

This poem is a grand but playful ode to music, celebrating art’s power to affect us but also imposing a moral framework just as it imposes a ‘universal frame’ on its stanzas. Music can be both a route to heaven and a herald of destruction.

Percy Bysshe Shelley – Ode to the West Wind

The violent wind evoked so powerfully by Shelley’s Ode is, as in many Romantic poems, representative of a tumultuous inner state of anguish. The racing rhythm and churning word inversions dramatize what can also be seen as emblematic of a violent and unpredictable Age, wreaking havoc but with the prophetic promise of peace to come as the seasons change. Juxtaposed with this destructive wind force is a vision of wind as the deity of poetic inspiration, a ‘spirit’. The ‘Wild’ freedom of the wind is also a symbol of lost youth. The poem’s sonnet-length stanzas suggest a dialectic structure, which we find in the uneasy recognition that violent tumult, while feared and fought, is also the source of poetic inspiration and freedom. Continue reading

Sir Philip Sidney – Sonnet 47

This sonnet uses Petrarchan conventions in its expression of the rejected lover’s plight. It casts the speaker’s attempt to free himself from debilitating adoration in terms of emancipation and slavery, serfdom and political tyranny. The poem’s interest in human agency brings into focus the issue of predestination, with a religious struggle becoming almost as prominent as the amorous one which it supposedly analogues. Battle lines are drawn in the unmistakable volta separating octet and sestet, and the inner anguish of the speaker is conveyed in wonderfully dramatic language. The resolution is obscured in ambiguous syntax but yields to the lover and love’s representative in tyrannous, predestining religion.

The octet introduces the sonnet’s discussion of agency and the possibility of free choice with imagery of slavery. We can see in line 1 the speaker’s attempt to maintain a sense of his own free will – it is he that has ‘betrayed my liberty’, the lover hasn’t taken it. The illusory nature of this assertion is suggested by the way it jars with its own metaphor – slaves don’t ‘betray’ their freedom, it is seized from them. The other possibility offered is that the speaker is ‘born a slave’, making his devotion seem like an inheritance as out of control as genetics. This idea is beautifully expanded in line 4 where ‘becomes’ means ‘suits’ in the sense of an item of clothing. This implies that the speaker has some natural affinity with or suitability for bondage in adoration. There is also the suggestion that the addressed lover takes a sadistic aesthetic pleasure in seeing her suitor enchained – as one might admire and compliment someone wearing something ‘becoming’. This sense of a naturally imposed servitude is the dominant strain in the octet, furthered by the image of an ‘alms’ beggar, where love is linked with some natural physical impairment like blindness. Here the traditional Petrarchan anguish at the scornful rebuttals of the lover gains a new pointedness is likening it to a scornful refusal of poverty and need.

The speaker’s pain gains much of its drama in hyperbolic but ambiguous language. The ‘black beams’ of the slave image give a startling clarity to that image when taken as the bonds of imprisonment. They also combine with their ‘burning’ effect to suggest a demonic light that darkens rather than illuminates, or else a light that illuminates dark and forbidden knowledge like witchcraft does. The speaker is implicitly accusing his lover of holding him under a spell by foul means. This makes one sense of the volta’s imploring, ‘Virtue awake!’, as righteousness drives out demons, so the speaker’s conscience will free him from his lover’s she-devilry. More faintly the ‘black beams’ may resemble the crucifix of Jesus’ death, with the first 3 lines alluding to Calvary in the pained mark on the sufferer’s ‘side’, and the opening rhetorical question recalling ‘My God, why have you forsaken me?’ This implication becomes significant when the poem is considered for its discourse on religious differences.

Religion is only implicit in the octet, in the crucifixion allusion, the idea of ‘alms’ and meditations on agency which is strongly connected with predestination. The volta after line 8 changes this, as ‘Virtue’ is invoked and the style changes such that the Catholic-Protestant division is dramatized in the two parts of the poem. The speaker’s sudden new resolution to throw off the bonds of servanthood is emblemized by the Reformation and religious rebellion. The sparse, literal style of the sestet contrasts with the ornate splendour of the imagery in the octet – representing personal, simple Protestantism and grand Catholicism respectively. The ‘Catholic’ element of the octet is its visual representation of Calvary – symbolising the lavish decorative Catholic representations rejected by Protestantism. The distrust of ‘Beauty’, and the sparseness epitomized in line 10 are suggestive of reduced, more intimate Protestantism. That line, ‘I may, I must, I can, I will, I do’ is extraordinary for its emphatic-ness and its monosyllabic hollowness – as if the speaker isn’t entirely convinced by his own assertive independence. This speaks into both the relationship and the religion, where Protestantism also advocates this personal choice and faith – showing that the vehicle and the tenor are equally in focus by this point; this poem is as much about religion as it is about love. The resolution to these twin discourses is obscured in ambiguity by the final line, which seems to surrender to the lover, and so to the resplendent, inescapable beauty of Catholic tradition. However the syntax interrupts the normal meaning of ‘give the lie to’ such that we are left unsure whether the ‘heart’ or the ‘tongue’ is lying.

This sonnet uses the powerful rhetorical images of slavery and emancipation to frame the speaker’s relationship with his lover – depicted as the cruel but irresistible slave master. In its questioning of agency and the value of beauty the poem also has an important discourse on religion but refuses to give an emphatic solution to either question.