Sylvia Plath – The Ghost’s Leavetaking

This poem focuses on the moment of waking up and invokes the dream-state in a luscious menagerie of images. It is interested in transitions, the state of semi-consciousness ‘between two worlds’, and draws connections between sleep and death, where mortality is portrayed as both terrifying and embracing. The nature of dreams as at once ludicrous and utterly sincere is used as a prism through which to see the whole of existence. The ghost of the title can be seen both as the shadow of a dream after waking, and also the dreamer themself in a wakened world.

The poem’s interest in transitional states and dreaming is conveyed from the first line where ‘no-one’s land’ uses the stock image of disputed territory to suggest a place between definitions, with no unique qualities but notable only for the two concrete things it is not. The alien feeling of remembered dreams is conjured in the vivid soundscapes created by different word sounds, ‘void’, ‘draggled lot’, ‘sulfurous’, playing off each other in cacophony. This aural representation of colour is countered by the sterility imposed by ‘no-colour void’ – mimicking the return of reality which banishes these memories of colour. The poem attempts to hold both states in suspension, capturing the moment of transition when both ‘worlds’ are available. There is a sense in which the wakened state seems the more false, the more one-dimensional. It is a ‘ready-made creation’, reflecting the fact that it appears instantly on regaining consciousness, but reinforcing the sense of sterility – it has been pre-prepared, and populated with banal objects, ‘chairs and bureaus’ as if it itself had been mass-produced.

The poem makes allusion to Egyptian rituals and culture to present dreaming and sleep ans intimately connected with death. The ‘twisted sheets‘ found on waking are the only evidence of actions in the night that have now been forgotten. They have associations of mummification, the Egyptian practice that has also faded in the memory, and decayed physically, to leave ‘twisted sheets’ as its only remnant. It brings associations of ancient ritual, mysticism that is picked up in the idea of ‘hieroglyphs’. The ‘chairs and bureaus’ become profound symbols with divine significance, something ‘wakened heads ignore’. Trying to interpret dreams is likened to attempting to delve into a mysterious history, interpreting symbols that now seem devoid of meaning. The image of the ghost, ‘Upraised, as a hand, emblematic of farewell’ bears a resemblance to an ancient depiction of a deity, with ’emblematic’ seeing this figure as another symbol in the hieroglyphics of the dream. The ‘rocky gizzard of the earth’ represents death, with the harsh sounding ‘gizzard’ reflecting the pain of mortality, and resembling buzzard‘, which in turn recalls the bird of prey represented in Egyptian hieroglyphs. This ghost does not descend into death, however, but instead rises into thinner ‘atmosphere’ – the world of reality.

The poem also looks at dreams as a means of exploring the bond between banality and profundity. The transformation of the ‘chairs and bureaus’ is an example of this already noted, we also see in the ‘region’ the ghost ascends to a ‘point of exclamation’ like a ‘stellar carrot’. The bathetic vegetable simile is imposed upon an image that perhaps alludes to another poem I’ve recently written on, Eliot’s The Hollow Men, where the different ‘regions’ of Dante’s Hell and Purgatory are invoked in a fear of death and judgement. So the profound and terrifying resolves in this poem in to absurdity – the absurdity of dreams ‘which seemed when dreamed to mean so profoundly much’, but also of real life.

The figure of the ghost in the poem can therefore be seen to represent the half-remembered dream – which like a dream is both there and not there. The ‘ghost of our mother and father, ghost of us’ are the fragmented resemblances of people in dreams that bear only ephemeral connections to reality. These lines also indicate that the ‘ghost’ is also the dreamer themself, where the ‘ghosts’ of the family are the wakened family living in reality. This is underscored by the recurrence of the ‘head’ at the start and end of the poem, first clearly the dreamer’s ‘waking head’, and at the end the ‘dreaming skull’ of the ghost – a figure both intimate and familiar, but also a representation of death.

This poem takes an ambivalent look at dreams both as the most profound human experience but also as death-in-minature. The speaker seems grimly reconciled with what is portrayed as an empty, sterile reality – seeing humour in the absurdity of existance and poetry in the escape of unconsciousness.


T.S. Eliot – The Hollow Men

This poem addresses a vapid, futile state of existence that Eliot sees as symptomatic of modern existence. The allusions and pretensions of the speakers to Tragedy, Epic and significant historical events, highlight the emptiness, the ‘hollow’ness of the lives the poem describes. Eliot tries to capture the terror and paralysis of modern Man.

The poem opens in the style of an incantation – anticipating a preoccupation with ritual and the demonic throughout. The speakers ‘whisper together’, with repetition suggesting sorcery or magic spells, and yet they produce nothing. The two lines starting ‘Shape without form’ address this idea of matter robbed of its purpose or essential value. The rituals of the poem work towards no end, just as for Eliot the rituals of modern life are futile and empty. Eliot makes a deliberate effort to make the everyday seem not just mundane but malignant and grotesque. The terrifying image conjured by the ‘Here we go round the prickly pear’ section advances this – we imagine children dancing and chanting round a cactus in the desert in the half-light like a scene from Lord of the Flies. Other rituals in the poem are the ‘supplication of a dead man’s hand’, and ‘prayers to broken stone’. All are futile, all seem to ape religion in a burlesque, morbid way. They are all representative of the seemingly innocent routines we follow day by day in an attempt – as Eliot sees it – to charm away death or the fear of death.

A central allusion in the poem is to Guy Fawkes’ Gunpowder Plot. This event is a representative for human kind’s ability to act, but also of an act stopped in the moment of completion. The Hollow Men are introduced ‘in our dry cellar’, likened to the conspirators with heads ‘leaning together’. Like th plot, the Hollow Men’s attempts at agency end ‘Not with a bang, but a whimper’. Eliot sees every human action in the modern world as fraught with doubt, self-loathing and fear, invariably leading to the inhibition of any meaningful progress. Hence the Hollow Men are also likened to the effigies of Guy Fawkes burnt on Bonfire Night, ‘filled with straw’. They are grotesque impersonators of human agency, ridiculed and condescended to as in the poem’s epigram, ‘A penny for the Old Guy’. The idea of effigy is developed to a disguise, the Hollow Men are seen as scarecrows, ‘Rat’s coat, crowskin, crossed staves / In a field’. the strange and ugly objects that adorn these figures might stand for the useless trappings of modern life that dress us up but don’t ultimately hide us from death.

The tone of the speakers in the poem alludes to theatre and especially Elizabethan Tragedy. The pretension in the voices of the Hollow Men, the exclamations ‘Alas!’ and Dr Faustus-like desire to defer judgement, ‘No nearer – / Not that final meeting’, always reminds us that these figures are not tragic heroes or even actors. They haven’t over-reached like Marlowe’s Faustus, they are unable to reach at all. Like Elizabethan tragedy, the poem stresses the difference between the exterior and the corruptible flesh underneath. The ‘broken jaw’ might remind us of Yorrick’s skull in Hamlet, as well as Samson’s massacre of the Philistines – another ironic reference to a figure notable for the things he did.

Ritual and disguise are seen as a desperate attempt to suspend judgement or death by the Hollow Men, who fear being held accountable for their failed lives. Dense allusions to Dante emphasize the eternal state of waiting and deference of Limbo. They ‘grope together’ on the shore of the Styx, river of the underworld. The phrase suggests brutalized sexuality of the kind identified by Eliot in the Waste Land. It also implies blindness, eyes being a recurrent motif in the poem. Judgement is through sight, therefore the Hollow Men ‘dare not meet’ each other’s gaze, and ‘avoid speech’. As in Prufrock, to interact or communicate is to be judged, and for the Hollow Men to be judged is to confront their Limbo – a neutral world of nothingness.

One could see The Hollow Men as a satire, pushing that genre as far as it will go in terms of bitterness and lack of sympathy towards the subject. It seems to go beyond even those limits, however, to a place where Eliot expresses neither pity nor disgust for the people he describes. Fittingly for the vacuous modern world he describes, he seems to feel nothing at all.

Robert Frost – Directive

The rigidity of form and metre in this poem belies its reticence with respect to meaning. The stanzaless block of iambic pentameter suggests something concrete and tangible, but this is not what we are offered. What’s clear form the lethargic, reminiscent voice of the poem is a preoccupation with memory, history and confusion. There is a sense of narrative movement, as we are taken up a road, past a town and into mountains with a house and stream. Impressed upon us is the idea that what was here is no longer here; other than that we are left feeling that a deeper meaning is being withheld, that a more complete narrative lurks untold in the background. Part of the poem’s discourse is conveyed by this effect it has on the reader, a sense of unfulfillment and confusion.

Not far into the poem we begin to question who is speaking to us, and from what perspective. The ‘Directive’ of the title suggests a command, a set of instructions perhaps in a will. The speaker knows the place he’s describing, he offers directions and describes landmarks, ‘this side of Panther Mountain’. Yet the speaker is not present. The voice gains a complex character behind it when it suggests, ‘if you’ll let a guide direct you / Who only has at heart your getting lost’. This cryptic remark suggests that being ‘lost’ has a greater significance than its surface meaning – it seems almost to have a positive connotation, in that it instigates the journey and allows the rest of the poem to take place. The apparent futility and absurdity of a guide who gets you lost is clarified later by the idea of being ‘lost enough to find yourself’. The poem involves its reader in this ‘lostness’, withholding the placemarkers of clear character and narrative to generate confusion. ‘Finding oneself’ usually denotes a mental process, a personal examination of one’s own psyche, and there is evidence to suggest that this narrative is a kind of allegory for something happening within the mind. The image of detail dissolving ‘like graveyard marble sculpture’ at the start of the poem reflects the fading of memory over time. The way the poem chews itself up and reconstitutes itself in repeated phrases, ‘cellar holes’, and ‘playhouse’.

The portrayal of landscape in the poem also contributes to the idea that we are seeing into someone’s mind. The three bleak lines starting ‘There is a house that is no more a house’, project a landscape of absences – a void containing shadows of what it used to contain. This is another picture of frail memory. As the poem continues, however, this darkness is filled with scenery on an awesome, almost grotesque scale, the quarry with ‘great monolithic knees’, that in turn recalls for the speaker the ‘Glacier / That braced his feet’. Nature is personified as a crouched or lying giant, all legs and limbs – reflecting the distorting, romanticising effect of reconstituted memory. All the time these images are undermined, however, as the voice acknowledges that they are in some sense imagined, ‘as if it should have been a quarry’, ‘there’s something in a book about it’. The poem is almost grappling with itself over the substance or lack of it in these images, and the poem’s effort is in getting down to an essence of memory that can be trusted. Even here we have a conflict in terms of the direction to go looking for this truth: one set of images takes us from ‘knees’ down to ‘feet’ down to the ‘instep arch’, perhaps the leg shape of the glacier being echoed in the form of the poem. Meanwhile the ‘road’ leads upwards towards the source of ‘spring’ at the end of the poem.

The mood of the poem generally is one of sadness and loss. A sense of nostalgia is created by glimpses of pastoral warmth and beauty, ‘pecker-fretted apple trees’, where homely, dialectic diction suggests fondness and remembrance. These glimpses are brief, ceding to the grim present reality of the ‘road’, which reminds us that these rural scenes ‘are lost’. A sense of confusion is reinforced at the end of the poem where the ‘broken drinking goblet’, which with associations or Romance quests places itself as the ostensible object of the poem’s journey, turns out to have been stolen ‘from the children’s playhouse’. This is in itself ‘make-believe’, casting the journey of the poem in an ambivalent light. The waters that make us ‘whole again’ might be the forgetting waters of the river Lethe or the life-giving waters of the Bible – both would put us ‘beyond confusion’ in very different ways, through death or in perfect divine knowledge.

This poem deliberately resists linear interpretation in order to create in the reader an experience of confusion and being lost. It offers glimpses of an individual, personal narrative, but withholds information that would give a complete and concrete picture – leaving the reader feeling there is more meaning just out of reach.

William Wordsworth – Mutability

Wordsworth’ sonnet considers the idea of impermanence in several different spheres: human life, and the idea of mortality, artistic style and aesthetics, and historical and political change. ‘Mutability’ is reflected in the form of the sonnet, which incorporates conventional rhyme scheme and metre but gradually strays away from it. The poet’s attitude to change is apprehensive but on the whole hopeful, asserting the existence of an underlying absolute truth and the benignity of ‘Time’s guiding hand. The image which opens the poem is difficult to pin down, and hangs to a large extent on the equally difficult word ‘dissolution’. We might read in the word the ideas of breaking apart, reduction and disappearance, as well as a resemblance to ‘disillusionment’. Hence at first the attitude of the poem seems negative – troubled by a sense of loss or weakness. It is striking then the assertiveness with which this ‘dissolution climbs’, a rising motion symbolic of strength and positive change. Then with the antithesis of line two the action changes again to that of a soaring bird – rising and falling alternately. The image might be reflecting the cyclical but beautiful movements of change – dramatized in the syntax itself which causes us to repeatedly reevaluate our perception of the poem. It is interesting that the dominant feature of this cycle is ‘dissolution’, as if the destructive rather than the creative process is what drives change. The ideas remain in a sphere of totally abstract sphere until line 3, where ‘awful notes’ introduces the idea of a musical score, and also implies the presence of a human element in the poem – someone in ‘awe’ of these ‘notes’. For the first time then we are given some emotional response to these movements of ‘dissolution’, although the vagueness of the word ‘awful’ doesn’t distinguish between its ‘painful, terrible’ denotation and the meaning of simply ‘deeply affecting’. There is only certainty in the notion that these ‘notes’ will be beautiful, with ‘concord’ drawing in the Romantic ideal of poetry as harmonizing and therapeutic. We are now given a far more concrete image, with the poet’s clear disdain for those who, in his view, live in ignorance of this music’. It is a music which on some level suggests the creative-destructive processes of Art, but also casts the shadow of mortality in the ‘melancholy chime’ of a clock counting away a person’s life, and the biblical connotations of ‘avarice’ – a subdued allusion to the folly of ‘building up one’s treasures on earth’. The statement ‘Truth fails not’ is both structurally and conceptually at the heart of the poem. Its strength lies in its positioning and directness, and the way it retrospectively clarifies all the abstracted ideas that precede it. The ‘awful notes’, and hence the knotty term ‘dissolution’, are now resolved into a simple concept of ‘truth’ – linked by the fact that it also ‘shall not fail’. We see that the substitution fits 0 truth also governs the artistic process, contains within it the ideas of destruction and creation, and seems ‘awful’ in the light of mortality. As these more airy terms fade away, the remainder of the poem is fittingly more fixed in its imagery. The process we have just witnessed is then re-examined within the idea of poetic aesthetics, ‘rime’, which ‘melt’ away to leave a changed landscape but one not altered in essence. It is perhaps a slightly optimistic view of essential meaning, that it should be just waiting for us under a thin and transient set of values, rather than essentially bound up in them. This is the poem at its most confident – its simplistic perception of truth is tempered somewhat by the ambivalent final image. The ‘tower sublime’ we see collapse at the end of the poem can be seen as a second metaphor for poetic endeavour – following on from the first quite naturally through the semi colon. The ‘crown of weeds’ on the ruined castle’s tower might be parallel to the frost of changeable aesthetic value of the previous image. Yet here it is not simply the weeds that disappear, but rather the entire structure – what we might have thought to be the unfailing truth beneath. The image appears much more ambivalent for several reasons. Firstly what had been implicitly identified as unchanging by the poet is actually subject to ‘dissolution’ after all, secondly the ‘weeds’ of impermanent value judgement seem to have actually damaged the structure of truth beneath them, as the roots of weed gradually break apart rock. Finally it is a ‘casual shout’ in ‘silent air’ that lands the final blow, rather than the brutal but beautiful music of mortality which opened the poem. Wordsworth’s answer is troubled but reasonably hopeful. In the ‘touch of Time’ we see a reappearance of an absolute. What is now doubtful is the poet’s ability to identify or interpret it; ‘mutability’ is in fact far more prevalent than was suggested in the ‘frosty rime’ image. It might even appear that events progress ‘casually’, without regard for any unfailing universal governing pattern. The poet’s superiority in being uniquely able to hear that music is therefore revealed as hollow. However, ‘Time’ itself, although its workings are ‘unimaginable’ to a human observer, is the singular authority – underpinning just as before, but also, crucially, undermining.

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.