Tag Archives: literature

‘On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer’ by John Keats

Much have I travell’d in the realms of gold,
And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;
Round many western islands have I been
Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.
Oft of one wide expanse had I been told
That deep-brow’d Homer ruled as his demesne;
Yet did I never breathe its pure serene
Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He star’d at the Pacific—and all his men
Look’d at each other with a wild surmise—
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

This sonnet is a typically Keatsian feast of glorious sounds and luxurious rhymes. It is based upon Keats’ first experience of reading Chapman’s translation of Homer, and explores notions of the power of literature and the imagination. The poet tells us that Chapman’s work has inspired him to write; he intimates that he had never created “pure” poetry until “bold” Chapman encouraged him to “speak out”. On first looking into Chapman’s Homer is a tribute to Homer, to literature, and also, I think, to the genius of the poetic mind.

From the opening line of the poem you might notice a connection to many of Keats’ early sonnets. It begins with a beautiful, mysterious, alluring statement, akin in tone to “Great spirits now on earth are sojourning” and “The poetry of earth is never dead.” As with so much of Keats’ work, the sheer music of his words is enough to entice and delight.

The speaker begins by equating the act of reading with travelling. This metaphor extols the glory of the imagination, the “realms of gold”, where the narrator has journeyed, symbolising the great literary works of man. Keats had a great fascination for the imagination; in fact, he once wrote that he was “certain of nothing” but the “truth” of the imagination. The sonnet depicts the travels of Odysseus around the “goodly states”, “kingdoms” and “islands”, which are described in Homer, and which Keats, through reading Chapman’s translation, has experienced himself. Keats often alludes to his belief in the potency of literature, and does so notably in his other sonnet ‘Keen, fitful gusts’. In that poem, he remembers the great works of Milton and Petrarch as he confronts the harshly critical literary world. These memories inspire him, and give him confidence, ensuring that he feels “little” of the “bleak air”.

For me, the fact that Keats mentions so many great names from the distant past in this poem (Apollo, Homer and Cortez) highlights his burning ambition for recognition as a poet, and his concern for the writer’s role in society. He often refers to great poets of the past such as Milton and Shakespeare, as well as to fellow Romantic artists like Wordsworth and Haydon. I feel like he was continuously comparing himself to the masters, reminding himself of that which he dreams of achieving. The reference to Apollo here prefigures the more important role that the god of poetry will play in Keats’ later works such as Hyperion.

Within the octet there is an unmistakable impression of restlessness. The speaker is seemingly wandering from book to book, with no purpose or direction in mind. I think this reflects Keats’ early difficulties in finding poetic confidence. He speaks of how he had oft “been told” of “deep-brow’d Homer”. Perhaps Keats is acknowledging a feeling of inadequacy here — of being dwarfed by such a literary giant as Homer (often venerated as the first poet). This is consistent with much of Keats’ early verse, where there seems to be evidence of self-doubt and self-consciousness with regard to his credibility as a poet. For example, returning to ‘Keen, fitful gusts’, he acknowledges his youth and inexperience as he admits “I have many miles on foot to fare”. Likewise, in On first looking into Chapman’s Homer he infers that he had never created anything of beauty until he was inspired by this translation of Homer; (“never did I breathe its pure serene/ Till I heard Chapman speak”.) It is as though Keats had felt like an intruder in the closeted world of literature — that poetry was strictly the “demesne” of Homer and such. But Chapman encourages Keats, urging him to speak out “loud and bold”.

In the second half of the poem, as we enter the sestet, the verse completely alters in tone. The speaker is now inspired, empowered, and purposeful because of what he has read. Keats has created an intriguing connection between himself and the reader in this piece. The poem is a result of his inspiration from Chapman, and by writing his own beautiful sonnet, Keats seduces his reader into his poem in the same way that he was originally enthralled by Homer. The writer and reader share in the same experience. Keats compares himself to an astronomer and a famous explorer; since reading Homer the poet’s confidence has clearly grown rapidly! He also becomes more poetic here, as he likens the discovery of his own creative genius to an astronomer’s discovery of a new planet, and to Cortez discovering South America. The caesura in the final line “Silent, upon a peak in Darien”, is wonderfully dramatic, and seems to echo the awe that the poet feels at realising his poetic potential, and the vast landscapes of beauty that his imagination is capable of conjuring.

Another thing that I find really interesting in this poem is that it seems to show Keats’ ambition. It is hard to read it and not derive from it some notion of the immense task that Keats seems to have set himself. This is something that I have noticed in quite a lot of Keats’ work (perhaps it is most obvious in the piece ‘When I have fears’). Keats’ endeavours to perfect ancient and difficult poetic structures such as the ode and sonnet also seem to support this idea of ambition; he mentions it himself in a letter to Hessey, which he wrote while writing ‘Endymion’. He writes that through attempting to master these challenging forms he had “ leaped headlong into the Sea” of poetry, and so become “better acquainted” with it than if he had “stayed upon the green shore” and taken “tea and comfortable advice.” Keats was uncompromising; he refused to take heed of the criticism of anyone but himself. And I think it’s a very good thing that he didn’t!

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh

‘Ariel’ by Sylvia Plath

Stasis in darkness.
Then the substanceless blue
Pour of tor and distances.

God’s lioness,
How one we grow,
Pivot of heels and knees!—The furrow

Splits and passes, sister to
The brown arc
Of the neck I cannot catch,

Nigger-eye
Berries cast dark
Hooks—Black sweet blood mouthfuls,Shadows.
Something else
Hauls me through air—Thighs, hair;
Flakes from my heels.
WhiteGodiva, I unpeel—
Dead hands, dead stringencies.
And now IFoam to wheat, a glitter of seas.
The child’s cry
Melts in the wall.And I
Am the arrow,
The dew that fliesSuicidal,
at one with the drive
Into the red
Eye, the cauldron of morning.

Ariel is the poem that gives its name to Sylvia Plath’s most celebrated collection, which was published in 1965. It was published posthumously, two years after Plath committed suicide. The fact that Plath chose ‘Ariel’ as the title for the collection is to me very important; I think that in a sense it can be read to define the episode of incredible creative outpouring that was the few years before she died (this was when she wrote DaddyLady Lazarus, Fever 103 and other seminal works).I feel that this poem is about the creative process, and specifically the process of writing poetry. It is very enigmatic, spiritual, and almost erotic in places — we find very physical descriptions. ‘Ariel’ is a name that we probably most associate with the spirit character in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, who is servant to the magician Prospero. This definitely adds to the mystical and magical quality that surrounds the notion of the Muse, or creative process, in the poem. However, Ariel was also the name of the horse Plath used to ride when she was living in Devon. The poem describes a woman riding a horse.Set at dawn, the poem begins with “Stasis in darkness”. I love this opening line; it is soft-footed, like the quiet before a storm. There is anticipation; the rider is still in the dark of the stable. But then she is suddenly out, and riding. She becomes “God’s lioness”. I love the lioness; it is such a strong, but determinedly feminine image. The rider is on an almost divine mission here; she is strong, and provocative (this part reminds me of that final, devastating line in Lady Lazarus: “And I eat men like air”.)As you rush through these swift stanzas (that create a breathless effect, when read aloud) you can almost feel the wind rushing past you, with the “Pivot of heels and knees”. “How one we grow”, writes Plath; she is one with her horse, one with Ariel, and one with her creative process or Muse. There is an interesting duality here; although Plath describes herself as “one” with the horse, Ariel also has a “neck I cannot catch”. This is fascinating to me because it perfectly captures the nature of the creative process, which is so very hard to pin down or define. When she is riding (or writing) she feels in complete harmony with this force, and yet it remains somehow elusive and mysterious. This mystery persists as Plath writes, “Something else/ Hauls me through air”. What is this force?This poem (and much of Plath’s other work) contains many physical images. In this wonderful, exhilarating metaphor for the act of writing a poem, the whole body is involved: “heels and knees”, “sweet blood mouthfulls”, “thighs, hair” etc.  I think that it is perhaps because she wrote such personal or ‘confessional’ poetry – using her own emotional experiences as subject matter – that Plath makes this poem so physical; she puts her whole being into the writing of a poem. She puts her real experiences in there. Perhaps that is why she describes herself as being physically hauled through the air, here; “I unpeel”, she writes. (I also personally think that there is always an element of wanting to shock, with Plath. Being a woman, it is somehow more shocking for her to use personal, physical images, and she uses this to provoke and get our attention. In a similar way, she included many Holocaust images in her other poems.)A part of this poem that particularly moves me is where Plath writes, “A child’s cry / Melts in the wall.” In the final year of her life, when Plath was writing many of the poems for Ariel, her children were still very small. She used to get up before dawn every day to write. I am sure this is why the poem is set at dawn, though dawn is also a beautifully symbolic moment of the day; it is a non-time, a time when everybody else is asleep. It is like how time seems to stop while a poem is written, and can then resume once it is done. I love to picture Plath writing in the early morning, the thunder of Ariel’s hooves in her head — such a powerful time of creativity. Real life — the “child’s cry” — attempts briefly to enter the poem, but cannot distract the poet from her craft. She thunders on, “Suicidal, at one with the drive/ Into the red/ Eye, the cauldron of morning.”

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh

‘L’Albatros’ by Charles Baudelaire

Souvent, pour s’amuser, les hommes d’équipage
Prennent des albatros, vastes oiseaux des mers,
Qui suivent, indolents compagnons de voyage,
Le navire glissant sur les gouffres amers.

À peine les ont-ils déposés sur les planches,
Que ces rois de l’azur, maladroits et honteux,
Laissent piteusement leurs grandes ailes blanches
Comme des avirons traîner à côté d’eux.

Ce voyageur ailé, comme il est gauche et veule!
Lui, naguère si beau, qu’il est comique et laid!
L’un agace son bec avec un brûle-gueule,
L’autre mime, en boitant, l’infirme qui volait!

Le Poète est semblable au prince des nuées
Qui hante la tempête et se rit de l’archer;
Exilé sur le sol au milieu des huées,
Ses ailes de géant l’empêchent de marcher.

Continue reading ‘L’Albatros’ by Charles Baudelaire

‘To a young girl’ by W. B. Yeats

MY dear, my dear, I know
More than another
What makes your heart beat so;
Not even your own mother
Can know it as I know,
Who broke my heart for her
When the wild thought,
That she denies
And has forgot,
Set all her blood astir
And glittered in her eyes.

I absolutely love this poem. It is from Yeats’ 1919 collection, The Wild Swans at Coole, which is amazing, and which contains most of my favourite of his works. I tend to prefer Yeats’ earlier work because I am more drawn to Romantic poetry than I am political poetry. I first read To a young girl when I was a teenager, and it felt to me at the time that Yeats was speaking directly to me, and that he understood me; I remember that feeling distinctly.

For me, this poem is the voice of the older, male poet to a young girl full of Romantic notions. When I was a teenager, I was more besotted with Yeats, Keats and the Bronte sisters than any of the spotty, obnoxious boys in my class! It is only for this reason, I think, that for me this poem was more about a young girl’s wild, Romantic, idealist ambitions fancying herself as a poet, rather than any romantic (with a small ‘r’) ideals of love. I love the way that this wise, worldly voice tells the young girl that he understands “What makes [her] heart beat so” — her Romantic ideas — her naivety? — and that though most adults might have forgotten how they were themselves in youth, he has never forgotten.

There was something very comforting in this poem for my teenage self, to feel that someone as erudite and successful (the absolute pinnacle of what success meant to me at the time) as Yeats could speak in this way to a young girl. It was a comfort to hear in this poem that he valued the “wild” spirit of youth and that idealism, because there is obvious disapproval of the older woman (“she broke [his] heart for her”) and “denies/ And has forgot”. There is the idea here that though youth can be naive and sometimes really cringe-worthy, it is something nevertheless precious and pure. Whenever I read over the poems I wrote as a teenager, many of them do make me cringe at my earnestness and naivety. However, I would never want to lose them and some part of me envies the girl who wrote them.

As always with Yeats, the language is exquisitely lyrical — especially those final two lines, I just love: “Set all her blood astir/ And glittered in her eyes”.

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh

‘The good morrow’ by John Donne

I wonder, by my troth, what thou and I
Did, till we loved? were we not weaned till then?
But sucked on country pleasures, childishly?
Or snorted we in the Seven Sleepers’ den?
‘Twas so; but this, all pleasures fancies be.
If ever any beauty I did see,
Which I desired, and got, ’twas but a
dream of thee.

And now good morrow to our waking souls,
Which watch not one another out of fear;
For love, all love of other sights controls,
And makes one little room an everywhere.
Let sea-discoverers to new worlds have gone,
Let maps to others, worlds on worlds have shown,
Let us possess one world, each hath one,
and is one.

My face in thine eye, thine in mine appears,
And true plain hearts do in the faces rest;
Where can we find two better hemispheres,
Without sharp North, without declining West?
Whatever dies was not mixed equally;
If our two loves be one, or, thou and I
Love so alike that none do slacken, none can die.

This is the first poem by John Donne that I have posted on this site, and it is a beautiful and spiritual love poem. Donne lived from 1572-1631 and is probably the most famous of the metaphysical poets.

The good morrow begins with the speaker reflecting on what his life was like “before we loved” — before he loved the woman to whom this poem is addressed. The answer to this question is that his life was meaningless, before her. He may have enjoyed “country pleasures” before, but these were merely physical, and “childish”. My favourite lines in the whole poem are at the end of this first stanza: “If every any beauty I did see,/ Which I desired, and got, ’twas but a/ Dream of thee”. Any love the poet thought he felt before her — any liaisons he may have had before he met her — they were “but a/ Dream of thee”. They were not real, and only a shadow of what love can be.

Stanza two goes on to describe how this woman has become the speaker’s entire world, and the spiritual bond that they enjoy together. Their souls are “waking” — coming alive — because of this love that has opened their eyes and filled them with joy. They have no “fear”, and their “little room” becomes “an everywhere”. They may spend their time cooped in one small room together, but being together in this space means that it is more than enough. Donne goes on to write that he no longer cares about sea farers discovering new worlds (as was literally happening in Donne’s day, as the Americas and other new lands were being discovered.) The discovery of new worlds means nothing to the speaker in this poem, for he possesses his own new world: his lady.

When we arrive at the final verse, Donne writes beautifully about seeing himself reflected in the eyes of his lover, and she in his: “My face in thine eye, thine in mine appears”. This third stanza fascinates me because there seems to be a desire for equality with his lover, which was perhaps unusual in Donne’s era. As he states, “Whatever dies was not mixed equally”. If the two love each other in equal measure then their love will not fade; “If our two loves be one, or, thou and I/ Love so alike than none do slacken, none can die”. I adore this ending to the piece, as it describes so beautifully how the spiritual marriage of minds and hearts can create an unbreakable bond of love.

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh

‘How it is’ by Maxine Kumin

Shall I say how it is in your clothes?
A month after your death I wear your blue jacket.
The dog at the center of my life recognizes
you’ve come to visit, he’s ecstatic.
In the left pocket, a hole.
In the right, a parking ticket
delivered up last August on Bay State Road.
In my heart, a scatter like milkweed,
a flinging from the pods of the soul.
My skin presses your old outline.
It is hot and dry inside.

I think of the last day of your life,
old friend, how I would unwind it, paste
it together in a different collage,
back from the death car idling in the garage,
back up the stairs, your praying hands unlaced,
reassembling the bits of bread and tuna fish
into a ceremony of sandwich,
running the home movie backward to a space
we could be easy in, a kitchen place
with vodka and ice, our words like living meat. Continue reading ‘How it is’ by Maxine Kumin

‘The Tay Moses’ by Kathleen Jamie

What can I fashion for you
but a woven creel of river-
rashes, a golden
oriole’s nest my gift
wrought from the Firth –

And choose my tide: either
the flow, when, watertight
you’ll drift to the uplands
my favourite hills, held safe
in eddies where salmon, wisdom
and guts withered in spawn,
rest between moves – that
slither of body as you were born –

or the ebb, when the water
will birl you to snag
on reeds, the river
pilot leaning over the side
Name o’ God!‘ and you’ll change hands:
tractor-man, grieve, farm-wife
who takes you into her
competent arms Continue reading ‘The Tay Moses’ by Kathleen Jamie

‘Nothing will die’ by Alfred Lord Tennyson

When will the stream be aweary of flowing
Under my eye?
When will the wind be aweary of blowing
Over the sky?
When will the clouds be aweary of fleeting?
When will the heart be aweary of beating?
And nature die?
Never, oh! never, nothing will die;
The stream flows,
The wind blows,
The cloud fleets,
The heart beats,
Nothing will die.

Nothing will die;
All things will change
Thro’ eternity.
‘Tis the world’s winter;
Autumn and summer
Are gone long ago;
Earth is dry to the centre,
But spring, a new comer,
A spring rich and strange,
Shall make the winds blow
Round and round,
Thro’ and thro’,
Here and there,
Till the air
And the ground
Shall be fill’d with life anew.

The world was never made;
It will change, but it will not fade.
So let the wind range;
For even and morn
Ever will be
Thro’ eternity.
Nothing was born;
Nothing will die;
All things will change.

This in an early poem by Tennyson, which appeared in his first book (Poems, chiefly lyrical) published in 1830. I like this poem, and the poem that will follow it tomorrow (the cheerfully titled, All things will die). I thought it was most appropriate to post them consecutively because they seem to go together. They present entirely contrasting perspectives on the world and on existence, and I think it is really interesting to compare the two.

In this first poem, Nothing will die, the speaker seemingly believes in a world that is in constant motion, constant change, always going “Round and round,/ Thro’ and thro’”. The world depicted is one where nature never tires of its cycles: “The stream flows,/ The wind blows,/ The cloud fleets,/ The heart beats,/ Nothing will die.” I love the way Tennyson uses this energetic rhythm here to reflect the rhythms of the natural world (I also love ‘fleet’ as a verb!) Life moves constantly through the seasons, always coming full circle to Spring, which fills it “with life anew”.

The defining statement in this poem, I think, is “The world was never made;/ It will change, but it will not fade.” This is a beautiful expression of the idea that if the world was never created/’born’ then it need not end; if something is born it must die, but if something simply exists, without being born or created, then it can be said to be eternal. Our notions of God (in most religions, I think) tell us that he is uncreated and can never die (i.e. he is eternal.) I like this idea of death not existing, but of it simply being a change, and part of a continual cycle.

I think that this poem could also be read as being a poem of denial – the voice of one so afraid of death that he tries to convince himself that ‘Nothing will die’. Read in this way, the rhythm of the poem seems feverish and frantic – a mantra to convince oneself of a fantasy. However, I don’t personally read it like that.

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh

‘The Applicant’ by Sylvia Plath

First, are you our sort of a person?
Do you wear
A glass eye, false teeth or a crutch,
A brace or a hook,
Rubber breasts or a rubber crotch,

Stitches to show something’s missing? No, no? Then
How can we give you a thing?
Stop crying.
Open your hand.
Empty? Empty. Here is a hand

To fill it and willing
To bring teacups and roll away headaches
And do whatever you tell it.
Will you marry it?
It is guaranteed

To thumb shut your eyes at the end
And dissolve of sorrow.
We make new stock from the salt.
I notice you are stark naked.
How about this suit—-

Black and stiff, but not a bad fit.
Will you marry it?
It is waterproof, shatterproof, proof
Against fire and bombs through the roof.
Believe me, they’ll bury you in it.

Now your head, excuse me, is empty.
I have the ticket for that.
Come here, sweetie, out of the closet.
Well, what do you think of that ?
Naked as paper to start

But in twenty-five years she’ll be silver,
In fifty, gold.
A living doll, everywhere you look.
It can sew, it can cook,
It can talk, talk , talk.

It works, there is nothing wrong with it.
You have a hole, it’s a poultice.
You have an eye, it’s an image.
My boy, it’s your last resort.
Will you marry it, marry it, marry it.

This is a poem that I felt a great connection to when I was still at school, and I thought about it today as I was preparing some job applications and decided to blog about it on here.

I love how this poem puts the reader in the position of the applicant in an interview; we are being forcefully interrogated by the speaker and the tone is extremely arresting. There seems to me to be a strong commentary on the role of women in society here. Plath’s context was England (and the US) in the late 50s and early 60s, but I think that this commentary is just as relevant for our Western society today.

First, the speaker asks whether we have various disabilities, such as “a glass eye”, “false teeth”, “rubber breasts” or a “rubber crotch”. The speaker wants to know if our physical body functions properly. This, to me, evokes the idea that women need to be aesthetically pleasing if they are to be ‘marketable’ or ‘desirable’. Women also need their reproductive faculties (hence the questions about the rubber breasts and crotch) to be considered valuable in the modern society/ a good wife etc.

When the speaker discovers that our (the applicant’s) hand is “Empty”, they offer us a hand to fill it, “to bring teacups and roll away headaches” — to “do whatever you tell it.” We are asked if we will marry it. This is a very bleak view of marriage, to say the least. But I think that Plath is satirising a commercially-orientated society here, and particularly adverts; for example, the speaker is really ‘selling’ this idea of marriage as they say “it is guaranteed/ To thumb your eyes shut at the end and dissolve of sorrow” . And of course, when it says “we make new stock from the salt” it becomes certain that this is a commercial transaction.

It is not just women who are trapped in this bleak, materialistic society with its approach to marriage, though I think the main commentary here is about women. The speaker notices that we, the applicant, are “stark naked” and tries to sell us a suit. We are asked if we will “marry it.” Here it is clear that marriage means nothing but an investment in the society being satirised here. I love the use of advertising language here, saying ” It is waterproof, shatterproof, proof/ Against fire and bombs through the roof”.

Continuing with the idea of marriage, we are guaranteed that the “living doll” being sold here will be “silver” in twenty five years, and “gold” in fifty. “It can sew, it can cook/ it can talk, talk, talk.” Of course, this is incredibly demeaning to women, but this is how Plath chooses to portray her society, and how she perceived the reality to be. I think that it is a really effective poem, and I love the way it is addressed to the reader.

Here is a link to a recording of Sylvia Plath reading the poem herself. I really love her voice and the way she reads this. Also, I think her accent is amazing!

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh

‘As kingfishers catch fire’ by Gerard Manley Hopkins

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves — goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying Whát I dó is me: for that I came.
I say móre: the just man justices;
Keeps grace: thát keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is —
Chríst — for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.