“Vertue”: Analysis

The Poem

Vertue

By George Herbert

Sweet day, so cool, so calm, so bright,
The bridall of the earth and skie:
The dew shall weep thy fall to-night;
For thou must die.

Sweet rose, whose hue angrie and brave
Bids the rash gazer wipe his eye,
Thy root is ever in its grave,
And thou must die.

Sweet spring, full of sweet dayes and roses,
A box where sweets compacted lie,
My musick shows ye have your closes,
And all must die.

Onely a sweet and vertuous soul,
Like season’d timber, never gives;
But though the whole world turn to coal,
Then chiefly lives.

The Message

“Vertue”, modernly referred to as ‘Virtue’, is a deceptive poem. Although it is, to an extent, about the importance of virtue, it spends a lot of time considering death and the temporarily of the physical world. The first three stanzas don’t actually consider the concept of virtue at all. Instead, they describe how all things and, in particular, nature, are shadowed by the constant presence of death. Then, in the final stanza, Herbert suggests that the only thing not to be limited by death is the virtuous soul. Such religious individuals are made eternal through their relationship with God.

The Analysis

Metre & Structure

This poem is written in a very constant iambic tetrameter that only deviates from this rhythm a few times, including the switch to iambic dimeter at the end of each stanza. These shorter lines arguably emphasise the theme of death in this poem as the long lines are brought to a short, abrupt halt. There is also the occasional switch to trochaic meter in this poem that helps emphasise certain words and lines.

The rhyme pattern in this poem is even more constant. It is made up of alternating rhymes, yet its more interesting feature is the repeated rhyme for “skie”, made throughout the various stanzas. This emphasises the “die”, making it sound more effective, and also making its absence in the final stanza all the more noticeable. There are also a lot of oppositions in this poem that can be linked through their rhymes. For example, “bright” rhymes with “night”, an opposite that emphasises the sense of darkening and growing loss and sadness as the poem progresses.

Line by Line

  • “Sweet”, “so” – The constant sibilance in this poem is emphasised through the repeated word, “Sweet”. This sibilance creates a relaxed, melancholy tone.
  • “The bridall of the earth and skie” – This allusion to marriage relates to the sense of harmony within the poem. At the same time, however, it indicates a link between “earth” and “skie” that is indicative of death. The “earth” represents the mortal human world while the “skie” indicates the Christian heaven that Herbert, as a devout Christian and priest, valued.
  • “The dew shall weep” – The personification here indicates the power of nature as well as emphasising the poem’s sense of melancholy.
  • “Thy fall” – This alludes not only to a physical fall or even a death, but also to humankind’s Fall through the Original Sin and thus suggests that Herbert’s audience has committed a sin – as if they are somehow at fault.
  • “To-night” – The plentitude of natural imagery in this opening stanza hints towards the sublime (the idea of being overwhelmed and overpowered by nature). The darkness of night gives a similar impression of powerlessness.
  • “For thou must die” / “And thou must die” / “And all must die” – There is a sense of an imperative command within this final, rather ominous line of the stanza. It is almost as though Herbert is telling his audience that they have no choice but to die. This point is emphasised by the abrupt nature of the monosyllabic “die”, as well as by the shorter line that forms the conclusion to this stanza. The repetition of this line throughout the poem reminds us that death is a constant theme, overshadowing the natural beauty Herbert describes. It also progresses from “thou must die” to “all must die”, this progression revealing the power of death.
  • “Angrie and brave” – The harsh sounds and meanings of these words contradict with the relaxed, melancholy tone of the poem. This indicates a change of the poem’s mood as its relaxed tone becomes more aggressive.
  • “Bids” – The change of tone in the poem is emphasised by this plosive “Bids” which also causes a break in the iambic meter (it momentarily switches to a trochaic meter at the start of this line).
  • “Rash” – This again hints to the theme of sin as Herbert suggests that his audience is somehow at fault for staring at the “rose”. This is perhaps due to their ignorance as they didn’t expect to find any “angrie” tones within the natural world that is ordinarily associated, as in the first stanza, with peace and tranquility.
  • “Root” / “Grave” – This earthly imagery emphasises the theme of death and suggests that the reason the “rose” is “angrie” is because the natural peace of nature is continually disturbed by the knowledge that its beauty is only temporary; the “rose”, like humanity, “must die”.
  • “A box” – This “box” may indicate a collection of flowers, yet it also alludes to coffins and death; in this poem, the positives are always shadowed by the ominous and constant presence of death.
  • “Sweets compacted lie” – Again, “compacted” may allude to the beauty of flowers all growing close together, yet it may also be a reference to the multitude of dead flowers nourishing the ground from which they grow. In the same way, “lie” may refer to the physical action of lying down, or to deception, and thus also the double meanings alluded to throughout this poem.
  • “Musick” – This probably alludes to Herbert’s own poetry but also indicates the beauty that is at least conveyed on the surface of this poem. It is also possible that the “box” from the previous line may be referring to a music box, which highlights this sense of beauty through its connection to a melodic charm.
  • “A sweet and vertuous soul” – Like the natural world, the soul Herbert considers is “sweet”. Yet what separates it from the temporality of nature is that it is “vertuous”. This is Herbert’s main point as he finally refers to the poem’s title.
  • “Season’d timber” – Nature is again being presented as temporary, yet here it is made temporary through purposeful destruction. The wood is not dying naturally, but being converted to timber, cut down by human hands for the sake of industry.
  • “The whole world turns to coal” – This again hints towards humankind’s purposeful destruction of nature. Herbert thus emphasises a political message within this poem as industry is polarised to virtue. This presents it as in some way immoral, which comes back to the “angrie” references made earlier. Herbert may be indicating that he does not agree with this destruction of nature, perhaps due to the Christian concept of human stewardship over nature.
  • “Then chiefly lives” – It is only really in this final line that the primary message of this poem is conveyed. Herbert is saying that whilst most things, such as the average person and much of the natural world, are temporary, the virtuous person will live forever through their connection to God and the idea of an afterlife.

Overview

Vertue, Herbert.jpg“Vertue” is all about the importance of Christian values. It promotes Christianity through the idea that a true, virtuous Christian will be made eternal in God’s afterlife. Yet even as an atheist, I am able to appreciate the message in this poem. There’s something really quite beautiful about Herbert’s descriptions of the natural world, contrasted to the ever-constant presence of the death that works to reveal Herbert’s main point in this poem. This is that there are many beautiful or “sweet” things in this world, and we can appreciate that beauty, yet no matter how beautiful they are, they cannot champion virtue, which allows such “sweet” things to be preserved eternally. So, whilst it is a Christian poem, it’s not inaccessible to the average reader. I often find religious poems quite difficult to appreciate as they are packed with biblical allusions, yet this poem isn’t like that. It is complex, but not in the sense that you need an in-depth understanding of the Bible to access it. In fact, if it wasn’t for the last stanza, this poem couldn’t be called a religious poem at all.

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Imagination in Keats’ “Lamia”

I have recently been reviewing and analysing a few short poems by John Keats. It seems that one of his biggest concerns was the imagination, and how it could offer an escape from reality; Keats believed in the raw power of our imagination but accepted that it came from our minds, which are confined to a temporary existence in the world. These ideas are considered quite fully in some of his longer poems, so I thought that it would be interesting to review them in one of my favourite poems, “Lamia”.

Plot Overview

Keats wrote “Lamia” in 1819, the same year that he wrote many of his famous Odes. It is a tricky poem with lots of references to classical mythology, so let me give you a (brief) overview of the main events taking place in the poem.

IMG-3135.jpg“Lamia” tells the story of a serpent who claims to have once been a woman called Lamia. She makes a deal with the god, Hermes, and he turns her into a woman. She then meets with a man named Lycius, who she claims to love.

The couple move to a beautiful mansion together and before long, they decide to marry. Despite Lamia’s protests, Lycius insists on hosting a large marriage festival so that he could celebrate the engagement with his friends and family. During the celebrations, a philosopher fixes his eyes on Lamia and announces that she is really a serpent in disguise. As soon as this happens, Lamia disappears from sight. Devastated, Lycius dies of heartbreak soon after.

Going Deeper into the Poem…

The first thing that’s interesting about this poem is that Lamia calls Lycius’ name as soon as she is turned into a woman. As a serpent, she would have been unable to meet Lycius, yet she claims to love him. Keats explains that this is because “she could muse / And dream, when in the serpent prison-house”. Basically, her spirit was able to leave her physical body and seek out Lycius, which enabled her to fall in love with him.

“Where she will’d her spirit went”  –  “Lamia” by John Keats.

This in itself links to the imagination, for although Lamia does seem to actually meet Lycius through this spiritual connection, her escape from “the serpent prison-house” reflects how our imagination can allow us to escape from our “prison-house” (our bodies) and offer some relief from the struggles of everyday life.

IMG-3136.jpgIn a way, Lamia’s life with Lycius also links to her imaginative powers. After their engagement, Lamia occupies herself with decorating their home for the marriage festival, yet Keats notes that “’tis doubtful how and whence / Came, and who were her subtle servitors.” The sibilance in this phrase reminds readers of Lamia’s serpentine form and the spiritual powers that she then exhibited. She decorated the hall with unknown “servitors”, which may suggest that either the decorations were an illusion constructed by Lamia’s powers, or that she imagined helpers as she worked.

This idea of imagination being able to alter the physical world is also prevalent later on in the poem. The entire time that Lamia is with Lycius, they are alone, but once guests arrive, she disappears. This may indicate that her entire physicality existed only in Lycius’ mind; perhaps she was never turned into a woman but, as a snake, was able to form images in his imagination. This is particularly interesting as their guests may represent reality breaking their imaginative trance, disturbing the vision and bringing Lycius back to reality. The shock – or perhaps horror – of reality then kills him.


Obviously, there’s a lot more going on in “Lamia” than its references to the imagination, and if you’re interested, there are plenty of readable versions of the text available online. I really just wanted to focus on the imagination today because Keats’ thoughts about it are so interesting. He views it as powerful, but, like Lamia, it is also temporary.

Anyway, it’s a great poem, and if you get a chance, do read it. When I say that it is a long poem, it is nothing on Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, but it is too long for me to want to write about each individual line, which is why I have chosen to analyse it like this, instead. I hope you enjoyed this post, and thank you very much for reading!

“Ah! Sun-Flower”: Analysis

The Poem

Ah! Sun-Flower

By William Blake

Ah! Sun-flower! weary of time,
Who countest the steps of the Sun:
Seeking after that sweet golden clime
Where the traveller’s journey is done.

Where the Youth pined away with desire,
And the pale Virgin shrouded in snow
Arise from their graves and aspire,
Where my sun-flower wishes to go.

The Message

This poem is deceptively complicated. Whilst, on the surface, it might appear to be a nice, light read about a sunflower in the sun, it is actually about the issues associated with reality, afterlife, and the imagination. The sunflower acts as an allegory for a human being: in particular, a traveller. They are tired of life and wish for something more. This takes the form of an afterlife that may also be associated with a world of imagination where people can visualise their highest aspirations. Blake presents this (afterlife/imagination) as an end-goal that everyone should attempt to reach, as he believes that it will enable them to escape from the brutal realities of human existence.

Analysis

Metre & Structure

This poem has an alternating rhyme scheme (ABABCDCD) which arguably reflects the pattern of life and death in the poem (as well as reality/suffering and hope/Blake’s imagined world). It is also written in a roughly trochaic tetrameter which may be seen as a purposeful subversion of the traditional iambic pentameter often associated with earthly matters such as love and life.

Line by Line

  • “Ah!” – This initial exclamation both demonstrates Blake’s passion and the inspiration that triggered this poem in his mind.
  • “Weary of time” – By saying that the flower is “weary of time”, Blake may be suggesting that it is “weary” of the entire process of life and death (human existence) and that it may be longing for a form of constancy considered in Keats’ “Bright Star” and Coleridge’s “Constancy to an Ideal Object“.
  • “Countest” – This emphasises the “weary” quality of human reality as the sun-flower is forced to count the steps leading them away from their current existence.
  • “The steps of the Sun” / “Sweet golden clime” – Blake here begins to paint an image of not only the “Sun” but also of divinity and the afterlife as the sunflower begins to climb the steps of heaven. This “heaven” (or new world) is “sweet” and “golden”, free from the imperfections that our human reality possesses. It is also worth noting the sibilance in this stanza: this next world is clandestine but beautiful, and these connotations are emphasised by the sibilance.
  • “Where the traveller’s journey is done.” – This is both ominous and conclusive, the nature of an ending emphasised by the end stop following the word, “done”. Blake suggests that “the traveller” (or sunflower) will be “done” when they reach heaven (or wherever they are going), yet this idea is subverted by the fact that this is not the end of the poem. After what we perceive to be the end of both the poem and human existence, Blake carries on, suggesting that the sunflower is not “done”, after all.
  • “Pined away with desire” – This may have sexual connotations. In human reality (the old world), the Youth is wasting away, crippled by their emotions.
  • “The pale Virgin shrouded in snow” – This can be seen as a negative; whilst “the Youth” is wasted by their desire, the “Virgin” is buried or “shrouded” by “snow”, reality preventing the fulfilment of her desires.
  • “Arise from their graves and aspire” – Reality is aligned with suffering. By “aspir[ing]” or imagining, both “the Youth” and the “Virgin” are able to “rise” into the afterlife/new world of imagination that doesn’t possess the imperfections of the life that they are now confined to.
  • “Wishes” – There is a constant sense of longing in this poem; everyone, including the sunflower, want to abandon reality/life for the sake of the world that Blake depicts. Whether this is a religious afterlife or another world filled with people’s aspirations, it is what we should strive for by searching and aspiring for it.

Overview

For a relatively short poem, there’s a lot going on in “Ah! Sun-Flower”. There are also a lot of interpretations that can be had from it; I’ve only really given one that considers the qualities of imagination and religion, but the idea of “the Sun” can represent a lot of things, such as hope, God, happiness and rebirth. The thing to remember about Blake is that his poems have a lot of depth; whilst he may be saying one thing, he is quite often meaning the complete opposite.

Ah Sun-Flower by Blake.pngIt might seem quite bleak, but the message of this poem isn’t actually that bad. What it’s really saying, is summarised in the penultimate line: “Arise from [your] graves and aspire”. So whilst Blake is basically saying that human existence is brutal, he is telling us that we should realise this, “[a]rise from [our] graves”, and find a better life.


As always, thank you very much for reading. If you have any questions for me or would like to offer your own interpretation of the poem, there is a comments section at the bottom of this page. You can check out my other poem analyses here.

“Constancy to an Ideal Object”: Analysis

The Poem

Constancy to an Ideal Object

By Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Since all that beat about in Nature’s range,
Or veer or vanish; why should’st thou remain
The only constant in a world of change,
O yearning Thought! that liv’st but in the brain?
Call to the Hours, that in the disturbance play,
The faery people of the future day –
Fond Thought! not one of all that shining swarm,
Will breathe on thee with life-enkindling breath,
Till when, like strangers shelt’ring from a storm,
Hope and Despair meet in the porch of Death!
Yet still thou haunt’st me; and though well I see,
She is not thou, and thou only are she,
Still, still as though some dear embodied Good,
Some living Love before my eyes there stood
With answering look a ready ear to lend,
I mourn thee and say – “Ah! loveliest friend!
That this the meed of all my toils might be,
To have a home, an English home, and thee!
Vain repetition! Home and Thou are one.
The peacefull’st cot, the moon shall shine upon,
Lulled by the thrush and wakened by the lark,
Without thee were but a becalmèd bark,
Whose Helmsman on an ocean waste and wide
Sits mute and pale his mouldering helm beside.

And art thou nothing? Such thou art, as when
The woodman winding westward up the glen
At wintry dawn, where o’er the sheep-track’s maze
The viewless snow-mist weaves a glist’ning haze,
Sees full before him, gliding without tread,
An image with a glory round it’s head;
The enamoured rustic worships its fair hues,
Nor knows he makes the shadow, he pursues!

The Message

Romantic poets often concerned themselves with issues involving time. Much like Keats’ “Bright Star“, this poem is all about change and constancy. Coleridge comments on the changeable nature of human existence by considering a contemporary loss of nature, his newfound loneliness and potential illusions found in the physical world. He compares this to “Thought”, which he values because of its constancy and suggests that our thoughts and memories are fixed and uninfluenced by our changing world; unlike physical things, his memories stay the same.

The Analysis

Metre & Structure

“Constancy to an Ideal Object” is written in a pretty constant iambic pentameter that arguably supports the notion of constancy. The rhyme scheme on the other hand is quite unusual. It begins a little like a truncated sonnet with an alternating rhyme scheme followed by a couplet, but then it changes to heroic couplets. These differing forms of doubling reflect the clashing of change and constancy in the poem, whilst the hint towards the sonnet form demonstrates a potential move from tradition.

Line by Line

  • “Beat about in Nature’s range” – Plosive language (in the words “beat about”) may be here alluding to the power of Nature.
  • “Veer or vanish” – Coleridge presents Nature as a changeable thing that “beat[s] about”, “veer[s]” and “vanish[es]”. This may reflect contemporary fears regarding the loss of Nature as industry began to burgeon during this period.
  • “Why should’st thou remain / The only constant – “Thou”, the subject of this poem, is presented as a constant within the changing natural world.
  • “Thought! that liv’st but in the brain” – Coleridge now reveals what this constant (“thou”) is: it is “Thought”, itself. Through this, he suggests that although Nature physically changes, the idea and memory of it does not.
  • “Play” / “The faery people” – The idea of “play” suggests that Coleridge is considering change in a positive way. The Hours are “the faery people”, connecting time to ideas of childhood and growing up.
  • “Shining swarm” – Coleridge now calls time a “shining swarm”, “shining” being positive and “swarm” being negative. This demonstrates his confusion over change, whilst the sibilance in this phrase acts as an onomatopoeia for the “swarm”, creating powerful imagery that emphasises Coleridge’s passion.
  • “Breathe on thee with life-enkindling breath” – Coleridge suggests that time cannot revive thought, which also suggests that thought is dead. This may indicate that only the dead are constant (yet not in the physical sense – in thought).
  • “Shelt’ring from a storm” – This may be a pathetic fallacy (reflecting Coleridge’s “Despair) that parallels the changing world.
  • “Hope and Despair meet in the porch of Death!” – Humans are capable of experiencing both “Hope and Despair”, indicating the changeability of the human condition. This line again suggests that “Death” offers constancy as it puts an end to both “Hope and Despair” (very different emotions).
  • “Thou haunt’st me” – The meaning of “thou” here seems to shift from referring to thought in general, to referring to specific thoughts: those regarding a woman.
  • “She is not thou, and thou only are she!” – “She” is not the same as Coleridge’s memories of her because whilst “she” is changeable, his memories are fixed. These memories are also “only … she” because his thoughts are all that he has left of her (or this constant version of her from the past).
  • “Still, still” – Coleridge emphasises constancy through this repetition. This makes it seem both negative and positive as his memories of his lover are forever preserved, but also forever inaccurate.
  • “Some living Love” / “Stood” – There is a lot of contradiction here; the “Love” in his thoughts is “living”, but also “stood” and preserved. Coleridge thus suggests that this imperfect preservation is a good thing as he still has his “living Love”.
  • “A ready ear to lend” – This is an example of metonymy as Coleridge here means that his lover is giving her his attention, not her literally her “ear”. She can only listen because she cannot change, and thus is unable to speak.
  • “That this the meed of all my toils might be, / To have a home, an English home, and thee!” / “Home and Thou are one” – Coleridge reveals his desire for the security of “a home” (emphasised through the repetition of the word). He also suggests that he has always “toil[ed]” for this security and that he associates domesticity with his lover (femininity/women).
  • “Vain repetition!” – This may have a double meaning as Coleridge criticises the “repetition” in his own poetry (as well as meaning that his lover is his home).
  • “The moon shall shine” – It’s worth noting that “the moon” is often associated with femininity (due to its connection to the tides and thus also menstruation). Coleridge thus emphasises how he associates domesticity with femininity.
  • “Lulled by the thrush and wakened by the lark” – It is not only his lover that he preserves through his thoughts, but also the memory of Nature (this may again relate to the destruction of the natural world).
  • “Whose Helmsman on an ocean waste and wide / Sits mute and pale his mouldering helm beside” – Coleridge ends this rather long stanza by moving away from his memories and focussing on the present; without his lover, the home is presented as a lonely place that is comparable to “an ocean waste and wide”. This indicates the misery brought about by change.
  • “And art thou nothing?” – This refers both to the immateriality of thought and sets up the subject of this final stanza: the illusory state of physicality, where even physical things can deceive the human mind.
  • “Woodman winding westward” – This alliteration emphasises the “winding” nature of this point and associates the poem with nature.
  • “At wintry dawn, where o’er the sheep-track’s maze / The viewless snow-mist weaves a glist’ning haze, / Sees full before him, gliding without tread, / An image with a glory round its head” – These lines describe a real natural occurrence. Apparently, when fog hits the mountains, a human-shaped shadow can appear in the air. A halo-shape also sometimes forms around the head of this shadow. This indicates how the eye can be fooled; physical things are not always real. They are changeable and fickle (unreliable).
  • “Viewless snow-mist weaves” – Sibilance emphasises the ethereal nature of mist.
  • “The enamoured rustic” – It is the “rustic” who “worships” the shadow, suggesting that they are isolated from modern understandings. The changeable nature of physical illusions can fool such “rustic[s]”.
  • “He makes the shadow, he pursues!” – The idea of pursuing your own shadow conveys the futility Coleridge is experiencing. He basically condemns reality, suggesting that it is lonely and false.

Overview

“Constancy to an Ideal Object” is actually a pretty complicated poem; there is no clear-cut argument here, for although Coleridge generally seems to be condemning change and thus also reality, he nevertheless indicates that it has its advantages. Whilst a lack of constancy can mean that situations grow worse, he acknowledges its connection to childhood and the joys and developments of growing up.

Constancy to an Ideal Object, Coleridge.jpgHe also values “Thought”, but simultaneously notes that it is imperfect, as the memory of his lover can only ever stand and listen as he is unable to interact with her. This poem thus has a lot in common with Keats’ “Bright Star“, yet whilst Keats openly admires and covets stasis, Coleridge leaves much of his argument in doubt. It appears that he admires it, but perhaps not for himself. He doesn’t want to be constant, but he wants his thoughts to be constant.

It’s not the easiest poem to understand, perhaps due to how much content it has in it; there’s so much going on, and there’s so much more that I could have talked about. Nevertheless, the ideas that Coleridge is considering are very interesting on a philosophical level, and you don’t necessarily need to understand the poem to think about them. The question is simple: is it better to live life to the full, or to be constant – immortal, but passive, and unable to interact fully with the material world? That is what this poem is really asking.

“The Good, Great Man”: Analysis

The Poem

The Good, Great Man

By Samuel Taylor Coleridge

“How seldom, friend! a good great man inherits
Honour or wealth with all his worth and pains!
It sounds like stones from the land of spirits
If any man obtain that which he merits
Or any merit that which he obtains.

REPLY TO THE ABOVE

For shame, dear friend, renounce this canting strain!
What woulds’t thou have a good great man obtain?
Place? titles? salary? a gilded chain?
Or throne of corses which his sword had slain?
Greatness and goodness are not means, but ends!
Hath he not always treasures, always friends,
The good great manthree treasures, LOVE, and LIGHT,
And CALM THOUGHTS, regular as an infant’s breath:
And three firm friends, more sure than day and night,
HIMSELF, his MAKER and the ANGEL DEATH!

The Message

“The Good, Great Man” is all about learning to appreciate what you have. In the first stanza, the narrator complains that he does not receive “honour” and “worth” when he deserves it, arguing that those who should have these things don’t have them, whereas those who shouldn’tdo have them.

In the second stanza, he is reminded that material things such as “honour” and “worth” don’t really matter, and that when a man is good, he will be able to appreciate what he has, appreciating friends, love, and his own goodness.

The Analysis

Metre & Structure

This poem is written in a (rough) iambic pentameter that is disrupted in several places, but becomes more regular in the second stanza. This perhaps represents how the second speaker is the voice of God/Nature/reason. The same pattern can be seen in the rhyme of the poem; it is a roughly alternating rhyme scheme that becomes more consistent in the second stanza.

Line by Line

  • “Friend” – It’s worth considering who the second speaker in this poem is. The poem itself follows a similar form style to Coleridge’s “The Suicide’s Argument“, in which Nature narrates the second stanza. This could suggest that the second speaker in this poem is also Nature, yet the first speaker calls them their “friend”, which suggests that they are both humans, and both equal to one another.
  • “!” – There are a lot of exclamation marks in this poem, which suggests that it is very personal and that Coleridge is feeling a lot of passion as he writes.
  • “A good great man” / “The good great man” – This phrase is repeated throughout the poem, yet also contains repetition in itself, as it emphasises the goodness of “man”. There is a certain element of self-pride here as the first speaker seems to be suggesting that they are the “good great man”.
  • “Inherits” – The term “inherits” suggests that the first speaker believes “honour” and “wealth” to be a part of his birthright, as though he is being wronged by having these values denied to him.
  • “Honour and wealth” – The first speaker distinctly outlines what they value; rather than friendship or God/Nature as the second speaker glorifies, they value “honour” and “wealth”, both of which concern personal glory.
  • “Sounds like stories from the land of spirits” – Sibilance here emphasises the dream-like quality of the vision as the first speaker considers the rarity of “good great men” receiving “honour” and “wealth”.
  • “If any man obtain that which he merits / Or any merit that which he obtains” – This doubling reflects the two stanzas of the poem and its constant repetition. In the first line, the speaker suggests that good men don’t receive (“obtain”) what they deserve (“merits”), and in the second, they suggest that men who don’t deserve (“merit”) “honour” and “wealth” often “obtain” them: the whole system is, in the speaker’s mind, completely unfair.
  • “For shame” / “Renounce” – Putting the first speaker to “shame”, the second speaker immediately asserts their authority and appears to take the high ground as they ask the first speaker to “renounce” their claims.
  • “Canting strain” – The second speaker continues to assert their authority over the first speaker with eloquent and old-fashioned language. Here, “canting” means a hypocritical and sanctimonious form of speech. In other words, this second speaker is telling the first speaker that they are wrong.
  • “Place? titles? salary? a gilded chain?” – Coleridge repeats ideas introduced in the first stanza (the acquirement of “honour” and “wealth”), yet this time he belittles them, using simple language, constant question marks and short phrases to indicate the meaninglessness of these things.
  • “Or throne of corses which his sword had slain?” – A part of “honour” concerns victory on the battlefield, yet by going into specific examples of the “corses” (which means corpses), Coleridge reveals the grotesque nature of this victory. “Throne” and “corses” may both be metonymically referring to a kingdom built on the dead, perhaps indicating those the powerful sacrifice to attain their positions.
  • “Greatness and goodness are not means, but ends! – The second speaker is suggesting that the very act of being “a good great man” is a reward in itself. A person does not become great so they can achieve “honour” and “wealth”; they do good acts so that they can become great. The first speaker’s failure to realise this may indicate that he is in fact not “a good great man”.
  • “Always treasures, always friends” – The repetition in the structure of this phrase emphasises how physical “treasures” are inferior to moral and spiritual “treasures” such as friends; they argue that the material is unimportant. The true reward for goodness is the result of goodness: a genuine popularity.
  • “LOVE, and LIGHT, / And CALM THOUGHTS” – Here Coleridge glorifies love (and friendship), light (which may refer to a religious goodness/piety), and calm thoughts. This is a little ironic, as this poem comes across as a little chaotic (with disrupted metric and rhyme patterns) and passionate (with an abundance of exclamation marks). Nevertheless, Coleridge glorifies meditation and the ability to reflect on life in a calm, measured manner.
  • “Infant’s breath” – Calm thoughts are like “infant’s breath” because they are simple and pure, as well as being measured and unchaotic.
  • “More sure than day and night” – The good man’s “friends” are “more sure” than material concepts such as “day and night” because they are immaterial and eternal. Coleridge is clearly glorifying spiritual and moral pleasures over physical ones in this poem, condemning those who seek only “honour” and “wealth”.
  • “HIMSELF, his MAKER and the ANGEL DEATH” – This last line is a little tricky; Coleridge claims that a good man will have three friends. The first two are pretty obvious: the man will have himself (representing his own goodness) and his maker (which may represent either – or both – God and Nature). In other words, the man will have goodness and the favour of his creator (which also suggests that he will have a good afterlife). The third friend is a little harder to understand, though. Personally, I believe that it is a reference to Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. During this poem, the mariners witness Death and Life-in-Death (who represents earthly suffering). It may be that Angel Death is the third element to this pattern (happiness in life). It may also, however, relate to ideas of purity.

Overview

“The Good, Great Man” is really considering what makes a good man, not what a good man deserves. The first speaker, who has not learnt to value simple pleasures such as companionship and happiness, is not “a good great man” because he is not content with his own goodness: he constantly strives for more.

The Good, Great Man - Coleridge (2).jpgThere is also a comment about experience made here; Coleridge suggests that by repeatedly experiencing and exercising goodness, it will become a habit that is ingrained in the mind of the individual. In other words, they become “the good great man”.

It’s a clever poem, particularly when compared with “The Suicide’s Argument“. Coleridge was clearly a very passionate man and, in both poems, he seems determined to educate his audience. In this poem, he wants to teach us to appreciate what we have, and what goodness really is, whilst, in “The Suicide’s Argument”, he teaches us to remember the gift of life we were once given, and how we may have squandered this gift with their own selfishness. In both poems, however, it is evident that Coleridge does not value anything done for the sake of personal glory; he values more immaterial things, such as love and goodness.

“The Suicide’s Argument”: Analysis

The Poem

The Suicide’s Argument

By Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Ere the birth of my life, if I wished it or no
No question was asked me – it could not be so!
If the life was the question, a thing sent to try
And to live on be YES; what can NO be? to die.

NATURE’S ANSWER

Is’t returned, as ’twas sent? Is’t no worse for the wear?
Think first, what you ARE! Call to mind what you WERE!
I gave you innocence, I gave you hope,
Gave health, and genius, and an ample scope,
Return you me guilt, lethargy, despair?
Make out the invent’ry; inspect, compare!
Then die if die you dare!

The Message

Although “The Suicide’s Argument” was published in 1828, it was actually written seventeen years prevously, which was arguably one of the darkest periods of Coleridge’s life. It is well known that the poet had developed a severe opium addiction, and in 1810 he was estranged from his friend and fellow poet, Wordsworth, because of this habit. Then, only three years after this poem was written, Coleridge was placed into the care of a doctor who was forced to cut him off from opium entirely.

This poem reflects Coleridge’s inner turmoil as he contemplates the issue of suicide. In the first stanza, he asks why, at his birth, he was not asked whether he wanted to live or die. Reflecting on the misery of his life, he indicates that he is considering suicide. He is then answered by Nature, who reveals that he had the same start in life as everyone else; she tells him that he began as an innocent, and that, if this was no longer the case, it was his own fault, for his own actions had led to his despair. She encourages him to stop his raving; instead, he should reflect on his life and question his mistakes.

The Analysis

Metre & Structure

“The Suicide’s Argument” is made up of rhyming couplets, forming an AABBCCDDEEE scheme. This doubling reflects the many binaries in the poem, such as those of life and death, innocence and corruption, and misery and hope. Whilst the rhyme scheme is very strict, however, this poem’s meter is very inconsistent. It seems to alternate between trochaic and anapestic hexameters, but it is arguably unstructured in terms of meter. This is important as it reveals the chaos and passion felt by Coleridge as he wrote the poem: this is a very personal poem and the meter reflects that.

It is also worth noting that the second stanza is longer than the first. This may seem like a simple point, but the length of the stanzas represent the message within the poem; in the first stanza, Coleridge is contemplating suicide, and is cut short in terms of line numbers. Meanwhile, Nature’s answer is longer because she is encouraging Coleridge to keep on living. She also has more authority than Coleridge, which may also account for the length of the stanzas.

Line by Line

  • “Ere” – “Ere” essentially means ‘before’ and is probably used here as it uses less syllables, yet it is also a traditional term uncommon within the Romantic period. This may indicate the endless nature of human existence as child after child is born and then, eventually, dies.
  • “The birth of my life” / “Life” – Coleridge is really emphasising the theme of life here; this first phrase could be altered to make sense if either “birth” or “life” was removed, yet Coleridge includes both terms to emphasise the importance of life.
  • “,” / “-” / “;” – The punctuation in this poem is very interesting because there is a lot of it. There are several end stops, yet the mid-line caesuras consist mainly of commas, semi-colons and dashes, which are all forms of extending a sentence that could have otherwise been ended. This punctuation reflects how Coleridge is considering ending his life yet, ultimately, he lives on.
  • “Question” – Coleridge has a lot of questions because he is not only questioning what life and death entail, but whether he, personally, should live or die.
  • “No question was asked me – it could not be so!” – Coleridge seems to realise the physical impossibility of asking an unborn child whether they want to live or die, yet he still demands it of Nature, and seems to use her inability to offer him this choice as an excuse to now end his life.
  • “If the life was the question, a thing sent to try” – This isn’t actually an original point of view; there are many theories about death, sin and afterlife that suggest life is merely a test, or a chance to mature the soul for the afterlife. In the same way, Coleridge is here suggesting that, as we could not be asked whether we wanted to live before we were born, life is a trial of existence that may be abandoned at any point – and the way to do this is through suicide.
  • “YES” / “NO” – The capitalisation here emphasises the opposing binary of ‘yes’ and ‘no’, which reflects the choice between life of death.
  • “Is’t” / “‘Twas” – Traditional language opens this second stanza in the same style as the first stanza, and again it reflects the endlessness of human existence, and also encourages a reflection of the past, which is what Nature next encourages Coleridge to do. It is also interesting that Nature addresses Coleridge as an “it” through “is’t”. She is either objectifying him or referring to his body alone, but, regardless, she emphasises the importance of the body and suggests that our existence on earth is primarily a bodily one.
  • “Is’t returned, as ’twas sent?” – Nature here asks whether we return to her the same as we left her. She emphasises her innocence as she reveals that it is out own choices that have led us to our states of depression.
  • “Think first, what you ARE! Call to mind what you WERE!” / Innocence” – There is a certain element of self-critique happening here as Nature asks Coleridge to “think” (this is emphasised by the word’s position at the start of the line). She suggests that Coleridge has done a lot in his life and that he is made up of moments from his past. Primarily, though, she suggests that earthly corruption has made Coleridge into a person willing to consider suicide, and that this has made him loose the “innocence” he was once given.
  • “Gave health, and genius, and an ample scope, / Return you me guilt, lethargy, despair?” – Nature both encourages Coleridge to realise his mistakes in corrupting his innocence, and to realise the virtues that he has taken for granted. In a sense, he would be rejecting Nature’s gift of life by committing suicide.
  • “Make out the invent’ry; inspect, compare!” – Here Coleridge is again emphasising the need to stop and reflect on life. She gives him imperative commands as she asserts her authority and promotes the importance of this meditation with the conclusive exclamation mark.
  • “Die if you dare!” – Suicide is again presented as an insult to Nature, yet this time Coleridge suggests that there may be some form of punishment for committing suicide; this coincides with ideas that suicide was a crime against God, which may suggest that Coleridge is, to an extent, comparing God to Nature, a comparison coinciding with the growing agnosticism of the time.

Overview

This poem actually has quite a positive message, and is one to really think about if ever you find yourself in a particularly dark place. It isn’t entirely positive as it suggests that our misery is our own fault, yet this reasoning does suggest that if we put ourselves into positions of depression, we should be able to get ourselves out of them, too.

The Suicide's Argument, Coleridge.jpgI should point out at this point that although Coleridge spent the rest of his life living with his doctor, his health did rapidly improve. He drastically reduced his opium intake (although, perhaps, was never able to stop taking it completely) and began to write and give clear, powerful lectures that he never would have been able to during his younger years. So, in a way, he was able to save himself from his depression (although he did require some help getting there).

It’s an interesting poem, and certainly worth reading. Perhaps the most interesting point is the authority given to Nature. Many of the Romantic poets respected and glorified nature, particularly Wordsworth, and it appears as though Coleridge is doing the same thing here – he is perhaps even suggesting that Nature has more authority than God.

“On Melancholy”: Analysis

The Poem

On Melancholy

By John Keats

No, no, go not to Lethe, neither twist
Wolf’s-bane, tight-rooted, for its poisonous wine;
Nor suffer thy pale forehead to be kiss’d
By nightshade, ruby grape of Proserpine;
Make not your rosary of yew-berries,
Nor let the beetle, nor the death-moth be
Your mournful Psyche, nor the downy owl
A partner in your sorrow’s mysteries;
For shade to shade will come too drowsily,
And drown the wakeful anguish of the soul.

But when the melancholy fit shall fall
Sudden from heaven like a weeping cloud,
That fosters the droop-headed flowers all,
And hides the green hill in an April shroud;
Then glut thy sorrow on a morning rose,
Or on the rainbow of the salt sand-wave,
Or on the wealth of globed peonies;
Or if thy mistress some rich anger shows,
Emprison her soft hand, and let her rave,
And feed deep, deep upon her peerless eyes.

She dwells with Beauty – Beauty that must die;
And Joy, whose hand is ever at his lips
Bidding adieu; and aching Pleasure nigh,
Turning to poison while the bee-mouth sips:
Ay, in the very temple of Delight
Veil’d Melancholy has her sovran shrine,
Though seen of none save him whose strenuous tongue
Can burst Joy’s grape against his palate fine;
His soul shalt taste the sadness of her might,
And be among her cloudy trophies hung.

The Message

Keats’ “On Melancholy” is all about (you guessed it) melancholy. It begins by suggesting how people should cope with misery, listing the things that a person shouldn’t do, and then what they should do, instead. This is more than just a self-help poem, though; Keats goes on to consider the advantages of melancholy, encouraging his readers to make use of their sadness and turn it into inspiration for their writing. After all, as Keats suggests, misery is a part of being human and, without it, there can be no joy.

The Analysis

Metre & Structure

“On Melancholy” is written in a roughly iambic pentameter with a few deviances from the rhythm (particularly in the third stanza). What is perhaps more interesting, though, is the poem’s rhyme scheme: in the first two stanzas, it follows an ABABCDECDE pattern. This (along with the iambic pentameter) forms the rhythm of the Keatsian Ode. Yet this rhyme is broken in the final stanza of the poem, where it follows the pattern: ABABCDEDCE. This is only a small change, but it does demonstrate a disruption of this common form, suggesting that Keats’ poetry is perhaps altered by his own misery.

Line by Line

  • “No, no,” – The ode begins in mid-conversation, sounding as though Keats is denying something that has already been said. This is because there was actually a stanza preceding this first one in earlier drafts of the ode. It took me a fair while to track down this missing stanza, but you can read more about it here. Regardless, its removal emphasises the passion in the poem; in a way, it is as though Keats is rejecting his own melancholy.
  • “Lethe” – This is the first of many classical references in this ode. As we learn from his “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer”, Keats was very passionate about classical mythology. This river is also known as ‘the river of forgetfulness’; a person was supposed to touch the water, and then forget all of their earthly troubles.
  • “Tight-rooted” – It is interesting that the wolfsbane is described as “tight-rooted” and therefore difficult to remove from the ground, because Keats may be perhaps suggesting that melancholy is also difficult to remove.
  • “Poisonous wine” – When the wolfsbane flower is used in small quantities, it acts as a painkiller, but when it is used in larger quantities, it becomes extremely poisonous. It is not clear which use of the flower Keats is talking about here, but considering his warning against going to Lethe, it is likely that he is also asking people not to suppress their pain through painkillers.
  • “Kiss’d” / “Prosperine” – There is a certain amount of romantic/sexual imagery here, as Proserpine was the goddess of fertility. She was also kidnapped by Hades, the god of the underworld, and Greek mythology suggested that an arrangement was eventually settled between Hades and Demeter, Proserpine’s mother. Proserpine would spend half of each year in the underworld, and half of it with her mother. This reference presents ideas of death and sadness, but also new life, which links to the inspiration Keats believes can be had from being melancholy.
  • “Nightshade” / “Yew-berries” – Nightshade is very similar to wolfsbane; in small doses, it is a painkiller, but it can also be lethal. The same can also be said about yew-berries; Keats is really emphasising the need to endure pain without trying to escape it, even if that escape is through death.
  • “The beetle” / “The death-moth” – As with the link to Proserpine, these insects have multiple meanings. In one respect, it is interesting that Kears is using insects to make his point, as it reveals an appreciation for nature and all its (small) details. Both the beetle (think of the scarab-beetles used in Egyptian tombs) and the death-moth are associated with both death and new life (the beetle appeared to come from nothing as they hatch inside dunghills, whilst the both appears to die when it is a caterpillar, but then is born again).
  • “Mournful Psyche” – Psyche is synonymous with ‘soul’, but this is also another classical reference. Psyche was a human who married the immortal Apollo under the condition that she never looked at him. Obviously, she did, and had to endure terrible trials for her crime. Eventually, however, Psyche is reunited with Apollo, emphasising ideas of resurrection and how happiness comes from grief.
  • “The downy owl” – The owl is another symbol of death – one which Keats thinks we should not dwell on, just as we should not dwell on the beetle or death-moth.
  • “For shade to shade” – Note the hushing sound here; this links to death and explores notions of misery (whilst repetition emphasises the double meanings running throughout this first stanza).
  • “Drown the wakeful anguish of the soul” – Here, at last, is the reason why we should not be suppressing our sadness: because this would be to “drown” a part of the soul, and thus limit our humanity and imagination. Remember, the soul is a part of what makes us human and, according to Keats, so is our sadness.
  • “From heaven” – Melancholy is presented as a gift “from heaven”; no wonder we shouldn’t suppress it if it’s a gift from God (even though Keats was an atheist…).
  • “A weeping cloud” – This sounds more like Wordsworth than Keats! Why is the “cloud” “weeping”? It is because it sent down misery to the earth “from heaven”.
  • “Fosters the droop-headed flowers” – Here Keats suggests that our sadness somehow affects nature and makes nature sad, too (it “fosters” the flowers that resemble melancholy) – because human beings are a part of nature?
  • “Hides the green hill in an April shroud” – Whilst our sadness “fosters” the flowers associated with sadness, it “shroud[s]” the greenery that may have raised our spirits; in other words, when someone is depressed, they fail to notice the good things in life, seeing only the bad (and miserable).
  • “Glut” – his is a harsh-sounding word, but it basically means ‘feed’. As both words are one syllable, it is worth asking why Keats opted to use “glut”. To me, it seems more negative: it is associated with gluttony and, as I already noted, sounds a little harsh. Perhaps Keats is suggesting that we should overfeed our sorrow in order to find it more inspiring (we should gorge on sadness while we can).
  • “Morning rose” / “Rainbow” / “Globed peonies” – These beautiful things are what Keats thinks we should be focussing on (not on death omens), yet these things aren’t entirely positive. None of them will last for very long: flowers wilt and die and the “rainbow” is only visible when the spray from the waves is in front of the sun. Keats thus draws attention to the impermanence of beauty, which actually relates more to melancholy than it does to anything happy.
  • “Thy mistress” – Keats makes two assumptions here: firstly, he assumes that his readers are male, and secondly, he assumes they have a wife or lover. This lover is the man’s “mistress”, though, providing an interesting comment on gender.
  • “Emprison” – Although the man’s lover is his “mistress”, he is able to “emprison” her, indicating a gender and power reversal.
  • Let her rave, / And feed deep, deep upon her peerless eyes” – Keats suggests that when a man’s lover is angry, he should let her “rave” and he should “feed” upon her anguish. The repetition of the word “deep” makes this seem a little sinister, almost as though he is taking the misery from his lover, as though sadness is a limited resource that passes from person to person.
  • “She swells with Beauty – Beauty that must die” – Keats is still talking about the impermanence of beauty now, but it is interesting that he chooses to personify “Beauty”. Instead of simply saying “thy mistress” is beautiful, Keats uses the word “dwells” to make her beauty seem even more fleeting.
  • “Joy” / “Pleasure” – Keats also personifies “Joy” and “Pleasure”. These personification allegories were a traditional way of describing abstract concepts, and Keats appears to be drawing on this tradition in this ode.
  • “Hand is ever at his lips / Bidding adieu” – Keats is basically saying that Joy is blowing kisses and saying goodbye (joy leaves as sadness takes precedence), but this isn’t necessarily presented as a negative. Joy leaves on a high, leaving behind him room for sorrow to be better appreciated?
  • “Turning to poison while the bee-mouth sips” – “Pleasure” turns “to poison”, this juxtaposition of happiness and sadness emphasising how both experiences are a part of being human. The “bee” again reveals how Keats pays attention to nature’s details and also indicates that once “Pleasure” has become “poison”, it cannot return to a point of “Pleasure”. This reflects how, once a bee stings, it must die, and demonstrates the power of Melancholy over Pleasure.
  • “Temple of Delight” – Keats suggests that “Delight” is a thing to be worshipped. He may be indicating that happiness is given an unfair amount of attention compared to misery thinking that Melancholy should be glorified.
  • “Veil’d” – This “veil’d” reflects the “shroud” in the second stanza, but whilst the veil is associated with marriage and new beginnings, the shroud is associated with death. This emphasises the binary between happiness and misery.
  • “Melancholy has her sovran shrine” – Firstly, “sovran” is an abbreviation of ‘sovereign’ that was used commonly in the seventeenth century. It turns out that “Melancholy” exists within the “temple of Delight”, emphasising this binary.
  • “Seen of none save him whose strenuous tongue / Can burst Joy’s grape – The only ones able to see the “Melancholy” within “Delight” are those who actively search for it with “strenuous tongue[s]”. It is important to note that this reference to the “grape” reflects the references to wine in the ode’s first stanza, as alcohol may be being presented as another way of suppressing pain/misery.
  • “His palate fine” – Keats is still talking about those capable of seeing sadness within “Delight” and by suggesting that they have a “palate fine”, he is essentially glorifying them, implying that they have good taste for appreciating sadness.
  • “Soul” – Ideas regarding the soul link to the concept of dualism (this is the theory that suggests the soul can exist outside of the body). The soul is “hung” as one of Melancholy’s “trophies” even after the body has died.
  • “Taste the sadness” – Much of this stanza considers the mouth and taste, suggesting that, in a way, we consume feelings such as joy and melancholy.
  • “Her cloudy trophies hung” – This is a very ominous end to the poem, but it does help to demonstrate the power of Melancholy. The souls or “trophies” of Melancholy have accepted sadness and thus been conquered (which is here presented as a positive thing – Keats wants us to succumb to our sadness).

Overview

“Ode on Melancholy” is a complicated poem, but it’s much easier if you break it down into its separate stanzas. The first stanza is advising against becoming trapped in misery and associating yourself with death omens. At the same time, though, there is a constant theme of new life and regeneration running through this stanza.

Ode on Melancholy, Keats.jpgThe second stanza begins to describe the actual qualities of melancholy and suggests that we should focus on the impermanence of beauty and, if a lover becomes angry, we should not try to calm her; rather, we should take her hand and appreciate her anger.

The final stanza is a little more complicated as it personifies Beauty, Pleasure and Melancholy. It is basically demonstrating the importance of melancholy, as it exists within delight and is something to be admired, rather than rejected.

It’s an interesting poem and tends to make misery seem a little better. Perhaps this would be a good one to read when you’re feeling down? The double meanings in the first stanza are particularly inspiring, whilst there are some fascinating comments on gender; why is that melancholy is a “she” and delight is a “he”?


Thank you so much for reading this post! If you’re interested in looking at more of Keats’ poems, I have also written analyses for “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer“, “Bright Star” and “On Fame“. Thank you again; if you have any thoughts or questions, there is a comments section at the bottom of this page. I’d love to hear from you!