William Cowper – The Castaway

This is a ballad with an unusual and distinctive subcurrent of introspection – a movement that is glimpsed at the start but surfaces fully in the final stanzas. The performative, distancing tone and perspective of the ballad form collapses and the terror and isolation of the striken sailor are traced to their source in the emotions of the speaker. This overwhelming sadness is all the more terrible for its namelessness, the profound personal loss that even to the end hides behind the allegory of the drowning sailor. One could read in this internalized ballad the heralding of the Romantic era and the cult of Self, yet the real ache of the poem is felt most strongly in the reticence it maintains to the end. Continue reading


D. H. Lawrence – Bavarian Gentians

Turning the decorative and incidental into something all-consuming, the flowers the give this poem its name symbolise the passionate, uncontrollable essence of the human as Lawrence sees it. The darkness so prominent in the poem is at once the id, sex, death and madness – held together by their shared connection with the Classical myth of Persephone and Dis. It is an ethereal concoction of unstable forces which oppose the light – representative of hope, truth and goodness – offering an alluring, primeval guidance. Lawrence’s use of allusion seems to encourage a universal application of the poem’s ideas, with the flowers as a symbol for the human condition. Yet there is a deliberate, though problematic effort to eschew this generalization and present them as a personal symbol, a confession of the speaker’s own dark passions. This despite the consuming darkness in the imagery of the poem, that removes all distinctions and makes any notion of individuality impossible. Continue reading

Felicia Dorothea Hemans – The Homes of England

A subtle and elegant assertion of belief in the traditional order and customs of English society, this poem is more than the grating panegyric that might be suggested by the title. For the main it glosses over class struggles and divisions, imagining a kind of equality enforced by shared faith and patriotism. At the same time there is a hint of a recognition of the plight of the ‘lowly’, and perhaps some responsibility on the part of the ‘stately’. The poem never goes so far as to imply things could be different – indeed this would run counter to its first purpose: to affirm the traditional way of things, and to look to the past for an ideal model of English society. Continue reading

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