LET’S start off our exploration ofliterature today with a quotationfrom the Romantic poetWilliam Wordsworth, who famouslydefined poetry as “the spontaneousoverflow of powerful feelings”.
Yes, a good poem is usuallyinspired by the poet’s emotionsover someone or something, so thatwhen you read it aloud withexpression, you too will also bearoused. It is so imbued with feelingthat, even without knowing themeaning of various literary terms,you appreciate what it has to sayand can empathise with its writer.
Nevertheless, you do need to befamiliar with some of these terms,because in the exam, you might beasked for an example of personification,alliteration, theme etc.
Here’s a short quiz of some termsoften used to discuss poetry tocheck up on what you know.
Match each term with the rightdefinition:
a. A 14-line poem consisting ofthree quatrains and a final couplet,or of an octave and a sestet
b. The repetition of consonantsounds at the beginning of words,e.g. the big bad bold baron
c. A literary device which speaksof a thing as if it were a person
d. The main idea(s) conveyed orimplied in a literary text
e. A two-line section of a longerpoem
f. The character in a literary text,but more specifically the “voice” or“mask” employed by the writer
g. A group of lines or verse in apoem
h. A four-line verse or a four-lineunit of a sonnet
i. The use of words that imitatesounds, thus suggesting the thingdescribed
j. A word or phrase used to referto something different from the literalmeaning but has similar qualitiesto it without including “as” or“like”
k. The use of words appealing toour five senses that bring picturesto the mind
l. A person, place or object thatrepresents a concept, e.g. the crescentis a symbol of Islam, while theheart symbolises love
m.A literary device that makeshumorous use of the double meaningsof words
n. The mood of a particular pieceof writing, e.g. sad, humorous, formal,etc
o. The contrast between what isexpected and what actually happens
The answers to the quiz are:
I do hope you got all these termscorrect. If you didn’t, you’re learningsomething new here, aren’t you?In addition, you should be consciousof the difference betweenwords which carry little emotivemeaning (e.g. desk, paper) andthose which are emotionallycoloured and arouse certain powerfulfeelings in us (e.g. love, death).
Be aware also that while thestrict dictionary definition of a wordgives you its denotation, the fullmeaning of the word also includesthe connotations — emotions orideas — associated with it. Forinstance, the words guerrilla andfreedom fighter may have similardenotations but they carry ratherdifferent connotations. The samegoes for intractable and mulish.
But enough of dry definitions andon to another quotation, this timeby Robert Frost. When someoneasked him the meaning of one of hispoems, he said, “What do you wantme to do? Say it over again in worserEnglish?”
Of course Frost was being facetious— there’s no such word as“worser” — but this underlines theproblem faced by anyone wantingto analyse a poem. A great poem isso exquisitely crystallised and ingeniouslystructured that any analysisis merely a shadow of the realthing.
With this in mind, let us nowtackle Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18.
Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?Thou art more lovely and more temperate.Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,And summer’s lease hath all too short a date:Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,And often is his gold complexion dimm’d;And every fair from fair sometime declines,By chance, or nature’s changing course untrimm’d;But thy eternal summer shall not fade,Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st,Nor shall death brag thou wander’st in his shade,When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st;
So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.
First, what does this sonnet say?Try to express it in your own wordsfirst. Only look at my paraphraseafter you’ve done that.
Quatrain 1: The poet-personabegins the poem by asking if heshould compare his beloved tosummer, but almost immediatelyimplies that he cannot. He explicitlysays she is more beautiful and more“temperate” or moderate in nature.
For example, “rough winds” mighttrouble “the darling buds of May”and summer does not last long(“summer’s lease hath all too shorta date”).
Quatrain 2: The poet gives somemore imperfections of summer —the sun can be too hot and sometimesit is hidden by clouds (his“gold complexion is dimmed”).Indeed, everything that is beautifulin nature fades because of an accidentor because of the passing oftime.
What literary devices are usedhere, when Shakespeare talks of the“eye of heaven” whose “gold complexion”is “dimmed”?
Quatrain 3: Now Shakespeareclaims boldly that his beloved’s“eternal summer shall not fade”, i.e.her beauty will never decay. Neitherwill death claim her as a victim because she will live on in theselines that he has written.
Couplet: The last two lines saythat as long as this sonnet is read,her beauty will never go away,because every time people read thepoem, her beauty will be immortalised.As such, the beauty of art(the sonnet) outlives the beauty ofnature (a summer’s day).
Thus, by talking of nature, beauty,time and immortality, Shakespeareunderlines the theme of his sonnet:the permanence and enduringbeauty of art is contrasted with thetransient and fickle nature of allother forms of beauty.
Let’s move on to Emily Dickinson’spoem (below).
There’s Been a Death in the OppositeHouse
There’s been a death in the opposite houseAs lately as today.I know it by the numb lookSuch houses have always.
The neighbours rustle in and out,>BR>The doctor drives away.A window opens like a pod,Abrupt, mechanically;
Somebody flings a mattress out —The children hurry by;They wonder if It died on that —I used to when a boy.
The minister goes stiffly inAs if the house were his,And he owned all the mourners now,And little boys besides;
And then the milliner, and the manOf the appalling trade,To take the measure of the house.There’ll be that dark parade
Of tassels and of coaches soon;It’s easy as a sign —The intuition of the newsIn just a country town.
The very first line tells us thetheme of the poem — death — andwho is speaking — the neighbourfrom the opposite house. The poemis in simpler English thanShakespeare’s sonnet, and you should know it really well. (After all,you will have only an extract tolook at and can’t refer to the wholetext during the examination.)
Instead of giving a straightforwardanalysis, I’d like you to bemore active: answer the questionsgiven after each stanza so that youget used to expressing the meaningof the poem in your own words:
Stanza 1: A death occurred in thehouse opposite mine today. I sensedit instinctively.— Explain why the persona couldsense this.
Stanza 2: The neighbours go inand out to help out, and the doctordrives away after having certifiedthe death of the deceased.Somebody opens a window suddenly.— Why is the window openedabruptly?
— What does the image of thepod foreshadow in “the darkparade”?
Stanza 3: Somebody flings a mattressout. The children are a bit nervous,hurrying by, as the mattress isflung out.
— Why are the children nervous?
— Why is the deceased referredto as “It”?
Stanza 4: The minister is formalin his behaviour, taking charge ofthe whole situation.
—What is implied by the last twolines of stanza 4?
Stanza 5 and 6:The milliner comes as does theundertaker (“the man/Of theappalling trade”). The undertakermeasures the “house” that thecorpse will be placed in.
— What “house” is the poet referringto? Can you now see the connectionbetween it and the podmentioned earlier?)
When there is a death in a smallcountry town, the news spreadsfast.
— Why? How?
There is the use of pun (play onwords) because of the similarity insound between the words“appalling” and “pall”. Any deathcasts a pall (feeling of sadness) overthe bereaved family members andfriends. You could even extend thewordplay because the widow isbound to be very pale andtherefore said to suffer frompallor, and of course therewill be pallbearers to carrythe coffin.
Note too that the last lineof stanza 5 flows into or runson to the last stanza. Thisunderlines the flow or processionof mourners in “thedark parade”.
— What is this “darkparade”? Why is it dark?Remember that withconnotations coming intoplay, words often have morethan one idea or feelingassociated with them. Here,apart from the people beingdressed in black, the mood isdark or black, mournful andfull of grief.
One more thing: Did yourealise that there’s irony inthe poem? The house has a“numb” look, yet it’s buzzingwith activity and movement— this is more obvious if youunderline all the verbs instanzas 2, 3 and 4.
Well, students, that’s allthe space we have today. For yourinformation, I’m alternating pairs ofthe set poems with the short stories,so be prepared forMaupassant’s The Necklace andLawson’s The Drover’s Wife nextSunday.
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