Best Words

Pre 1914

La Belle Dame Sans Merci - John Keats

See note on Keats' life on page 27. This poem needs to be read in conjunction with To Autumn on page 4. I think that these two poems are linked in that they deal differently with the concept of the transience of life and the inevitability of death. It seems to me that in this poem Keats is presenting a bitter response to this concept. I perceive "la belle dame" as death herself, and see the poem as being about the seductive but ultimately deceptive appeal of death as an escape from the pain of the world.

The first three stanzas are addressed to the knight and indicate that both he and the landscape around him are in decay: we read that

"The sedge has withered from the lake,
and no birds sing"

and that on his cheeks

"a fading rose
Fast withereth"

"The harvest's done"

and that time of fruitfulness is over.

The remainder of the poem is the knight's explanation of his plight: the magical lady he met entranced, blinded and deceived him before abandoning him without hope. I feel that the fact that she looked at him "as she did love" implies as if she did love, and that in fact she didn't. When on his horse she obliterates his view of the world and focuses his attention on her so that he "nothing else saw all day long", and she "lulled" him to sleep. He is now utterly given over to her, and it is at this point that she abandons him and he dreams of his fellow victims warning him that he is "in thrall", or slavery. He continues to wander "Alone and palely loitering" though all around is dead, because he seems to have nowhere else to go.

As I have said, I see this poem as being about death, and link it with To Autumn. Others see it as a poem about the death of love. There's nothing to stop you reading it either way, or to stop it being both!

To Autumn - John Keats

The poem is directly addressed to autumn, which is personified. We could say that autumn is apostrophised - spoken to directly - if we wanted to wow the examiner with our technical vocabulary. Thus, "In this poem Keats apostrophises autumn." The sun is also personified, and it and autumn are presented as colluding to overwhelm creation and nature with "mellow fruitfulness", and the first eleven lines are packed with vocabulary which speaks of productive completeness: "mellow fruitfulness", "load and bless with fruit", "fill all fruit with ripeness to the core", "swell", "plump", "o'erbrimmed". I'm particularly fond of the image of the confused and overwhelmed bees who can't find room for any more nectar in the "clammy cells" of their honeycombs. The line length and enjambment we find adds to the sense of overwhelming fullness created in this verse.

The next verse presents a series of portraits of Autumn, in a variety of harvest related poses. All of these poses are beautiful and pastorally romantic, suggestive of contentment, fulfilment and peace.

The last verse recognises the appeal and challenge of Spring but rejects it as irrelevant:

"Think not of them, - thou hast thy music too"

Autumn is being presented as a time of beauty in and of itself, with nothing to fear or regret.

I'm interested in these "full-grown lambs". Isn't a full grown lamb a sheep? Is Keats suggesting that the purpose of the lamb is to become the sheep, the purpose of Spring is to lead to Autumn? Is it true, as Wordsworth would have it, that "The child is father to the man"? Am I talking rubbish?

Link this in with the idea of death and the autumn of a person's life, when death is approaching. My theory is that in this poem Keats is presenting an acceptance of death which was not present in La Belle Dame Sans Merci. The poem in this collection which presents a similar view of death, it seems to me, is Amen by Christina Rossetti, so I'll do that one now.

Amen - Christina Rossetti

See the note on page 23.

The title itself speaks both of ending and completion. Amen is what is said at the end of prayers and means "so be it." It denotes acceptance and assent.

Each verse follows the pattern of statement, question and development. Verse 1 seems a little negative at the outset: "It is over" seems a very final form of words. However, the question challenges that negative assertion, opening the way for the realisation that the end which has been reached is a fruitful and planned end:

"Harvest days we toiled to sow for;
Now the sheaves are gathered newly,
Now the wheat is garnered duly."

The next verse is loaded with biblical echoes. "It is finished" were Christ's last words from the cross. They can also be translated "It is accomplished". From a Christian perspective, what had been accomplished by this death was the breaking of the power of sin and the freeing of mankind for a friendship with God. Furthermore, it wasn't really an end because after death came resurrection. Now, you don't have to believe this (though I do) but you have to know about it, because Christina Rossetti was a Christian and, indeed, a hymn writer. She would have known what she was doing when she chose these words, and would not have used them lightly.

The remainder of this verse seems less certain; it is as if there are unanswered questions left hanging in the air.

Nevertheless, the final verse asserts the acceptance implied in the title. "It suffices"; it is enough. Indeed, she states, "All suffices reckoned rightly"; everything is enough, if looked at in the right way. The last five lines show the triumph of life over death, spring over winter. Opposing word pairs such as "Spring _ice"; "Roses_bramble" demonstrate this. The "quickening sun" will bring life and warmth, the wind will create movement and end stagnation, and riches and fulfilment will return to the garden of the poet's life, which will "teem with spices".

Whether the poem is about the end of life or the end of love, it certainly comes through to a triumphant acceptance of the way things are. I feel that it is like To Autumn in this sense.

To A Mouse - Robert Burns

In narrative terms this is, indeed, a poem about Burns' feelings on overturning the nest of a mouse with his plough. He directly addresses (apostrophises) the mouse, telling it not to be afraid of him, apologising to it, sympathising with its plight then claiming to be in a worse position himself.

The ideas expressed in the poem are political and philosophical; his reference to "Nature's social union" and his regret that it has been broken by "Man's dominion", together with his description of himself as

"thy poor, earth born companion
An' fellow mortal"

suggest a belief in the equality of all life.

Burns bases his claim to be worse off then the mouse on the fact that, whilst the mouse lives only in the present, the poet has both memory and foresight; he can remember past pain and expect future suffering. In this sense the poem is, as the book's notes would have it, "really about the apparent futility of life and labour."

The four poems I have dealt with so far could all be used in a discussion of how poems which are ostensibly to do with nature in fact have another layer to them. The poems which follow are, in one way or another, connected with the theme of love.

First Love - John Clare

This is a very romantic poem about unrequited, hopeless love. It's told from a male perspective. There has been no actual relationship between the parties; it's merely an impossible love at first sight.

Words like "struck" and "sudden" show the immediate and powerful impact the woman has on the poet, and the physical nature of that impact is later developed. He is rendered powerless by her -

"My legs refused to walk away"

"my blood rushed to my face
And took my sight away"

"I could not see a single thing"

; his senses are in turmoil -

"seemed midnight at noonday"

- and his life is turned upside down -

"My heart has left its dwelling place
And can return no more."

And while this is all happening he realises that it is a love which cannot be -

"Are flowers the winter's choice?
Is love's bed always snow?"

The feeling at the end of the poem is one of absolute hopelessness. I can see a connection with La Belle Dame Sans Merci here, in that the knight has experienced a joy which has been taken away in the same way that this poet has been shown a love which is unattainable.

Ballad - Anon

This is a poem told from a female perspective about betrayal in love. The ballad form is very suitable for what is both an age old and a timeless story. The story is simple: she has been seduced, made pregnant and abandoned, and is now lamenting this fact and trying to make plans for the future.

The first three verses tell the story of this seduction and betrayal.

Verse 4 sees the girl wishing she could undo the past, realising she can't and longing for death -

"O when will green grass cover me?"

In verse 5 we see a recognition that she is not alone in this suffering. The reference to the thorny pillow is, of course, metaphorical.

Verses 6 & 7 present a series of contrasts between what the girl expected and what she got, what she did and what she should have done: "silk" and "milk" are the dream, but "clay" is the reality; His heart seemed soft but it was steel; she laments "O had I walked ere I did run".

In verse 8 her thoughts turn more to the baby and its future, especially once she is gone, which she seems to think will be soon,

"When thou without a friend shall be
Weeping on a stranger's knee."

Her grief is intensified by the absolute trust the baby has in her, and its ignorance of its fate. I think it is at this point that she decides to kill both herself and the baby. I can't prove it, but it seems to me to be suggested by the last two lines, as contrasted with lines 19 & 20. I think that this "wish" which she is voicing is in fact an intention, the only way out that she can see for the pair of them. If this is so, it is tribute to the power of this simple yet profound poem that we end up sympathising with her rather than seeing her as an infanticidal monster.

Shall I compare thee? - Shakespeare

The poet here is eulogising (praising) his love. He asks whether a Summer's day, a lovely thing, is a suitable comparison, but decides that she outstrips it, being "more lovely and more temperate." He suggests she is superior in that she is more beautiful, more consistent and longer lasting - immortal in fact.

Summer is vulnerable to wind and weather; it ends too soon; the sun is sometimes too hot but at other times is overcast; all lovely things lose their beauty either as a result of accident or the ravages of time. She, he claims, is the exception; she will neither lose her beauty nor die. This is, on the face of it, ridiculous, till we realise that he is claiming to be immortalising her and her beauty in his verse:

"So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee."

"This" is his poem eulogising her.

Let me not - Shakespeare

This is a poem not about a lover but the nature of love, what it is and what it is not. He will not accept that "impediments" can get in the way of real love, "the marriage of true minds". Note that this love is not a physical thing; it is the minds which are married. Love is not affected by changes of circumstance, even if that circumstance is the withdrawal of love on the other side. Shakespeare uses a nautical image to describe the steadfastness of love; it is like a landmark unmoved by storms; it is like a star to steer by. (Though Shakespeare uses metaphor rather than simile: he says love is these things, not that it is like these things, so the image is stronger).

Love is not susceptible to time or its ravages. Indeed, in the face of such love, the "breefe houres and weekes"of time are irrelevant.

Shakespeare announces the self evidency of his statements in the final couplet; since he has lived and men have loved, he seems to be saying, he must be right!

The Flea - John Donne

Donne was what is known as a metaphysical poet. So was Marvell who wrote To His Coy Mistress. Both are come - to - bed poems, which use extreme comparisons (conceits) and the power of argument to carry their point.

In this poem Donne is trying to persuade his girlfriend to have sex with him. He finds a flea which has bitten both of them and argues that, since they are already united in the flea, they might as well sleep together.

We would not normally expect to find a flea in a love poem. John Donne is using a conceit - a ridiculous comparison logically argued.

In the first stanza the flea has sucked both their bloods, enabling Donne to argue that the two are already one. He claims that she has not sinned in being enjoyed by the flea and implies that she would not sin in being enjoyed by him.

Between stanzas 1 & 2 she must be about to kill the flea. He argues that this would be committing multiple murder as well as sacrilege. She would be taking the life of the flea, but also their two lives since their blood is in the flea. Since they are, he claims "more than married" by their blood unity in the flea, she would be destroying their "marriage temple". Taking her own life would be suicide, which was not only a sin but also, in Donne's time, a crime.

Nevertheless between stanzas 2 & 3 she kills the flea. His tone in lines 19 -22 is angry and reproachful. The poet seems to have suffered a reversal; despite the flea being dead they are no weaker, as he had claimed they would be. At this point she would seem to have won, indeed she "triumphest". He seems to agree with her but then turns it around; just as he was wrong to think that the flea's death would weaken him, she is wrong to think that sleeping with him would damage her reputation. This poem is more to do with sex than with love, as is Marvell's poem.

To His Coy Mistress - Andrew Marvell

Marvell's argument is that, if they had all the time in the world, he would happily wait for his lover to be ready for him. He lists the things he would be content to do, giving her the exotic pleasures of the Ganges whilst he waits by the more mundane Humber. He stresses the eternal nature of his love by his references to the flood - way back in pre history - and the conversion of the Jews - set to happen at the end of time! He would spend eons adoring the various parts of her anatomy "because", as he & the cosmetic company say, "you're worth it!" Well, he says "Lady, you deserve this state", but you get my drift, yes?

All of this is just crying out for a "but", and it comes at the beginning of the next verse. The problem is that they haven't got all the time in the world. Time is catching up with them, and time brings death. There's no courting in death and even if she keeps her hymen safe from him in life, the worms will get to it in the end. It's a horrible, brutal, shocking image, isn't it, but we can't pretend it's not there. This being the case, he says, they should go for it "now". Look at the repetition of that word. I love this verse. It's so passionate and energetic and visual. He says that, rather than waiting for time to chew them up slowly, they should "devour" their time, consuming it in pleasure. He suggests that they should go out in a blaze of glory (and, presumably, sex). That way, though they won't be able to stop time -

"though we cannot make our sun stand still"

- at least they can give it a run for its money -

"yet we will make him run."

This ending is so fantastic I can almost forgive him the bit about the worms!

This leaves us with Porphyria's Lover and My Last Duchess, both of which are dramatic monologues by Browning dealing with obsessive love and jealousy. Both narrators are, in their own way, psychopaths, who can see nothing wrong with what they've done.

My Last Duchess - Browning

The story is that the Duke is showing around a servant with whose master he is engaged in negotiations for a new bride; the Duke wants to marry the daughter of the master. This makes the fact that he tells the servant this story really quite remarkable. He shows the picture, usually veiled, because he is possessive of her in her death as he was in her life, and tells how she came to die. She was "too soon made glad" and did not, he felt, appreciate him enough. He was too proud to rebuke her for this, feeling it would be demeaning -

"and I choose
Never to stoop"

Instead, he

"gave commands.
Then all smiles stopped together."

In other words he becomes jealous of the fact that his young wife is made happy by things not in his control, and kills her for it!

I love the way that the servant seems to be trying to get to his master, presumably to warn him off this nutter, but is prevented by the Duke:

"Nay, we'll go
together down, sir."

The reference to the bronze of Neptune taming a sea horse is significant: he has tamed his "last duchess" and added her to his collection in the same way.

Porphyrias's Lover - Browning

The poem starts with a description of the weather - turbulent to match the mood of the narrator. This is a common literary device. Porphyria's behaviour on entering would, you would have thought, changed his attitude, but he seems unresponsive even when she is being quite provocative - lines.16 - 21.

The story seems to be that she is his social superior and cannot break away from the high life which she enjoys in order to be with him. She is just not up to the sacrifice-

"Too weak, for all her heart's endeavour
To set its struggling passion free
And give herself to me forever."

By coming to him through the storm she seals her fate. He believes it is a proof of love-

"at last I knew
Porphyria worshipped me"

He decides to hold onto the moment in which she is his absolutely -"mine, mine" (note the obsessive repetition) - by killing her. This will also protect her from becoming a victim of her own weakness in future, and maybe ceasing to be "perfectly pure and good." He believes that in doing this he is freeing her from her weakness so that she can be with him which, he thinks, is her "utmost will", what she wants most in the world. He believes he has not hurt her, though one would think that being strangled with one's own hair would be less than entirely comfortable! Furthermore, he believes God has not judged him guilty: he has sat cuddled up to her dead body all night, "And yet God has not said a word."

The events are narrated by the lover, who has no sense of guilt, yet Browning creates a sense of shock and revulsion in the reader. The lover's own lack of awareness of his wrongdoing only adds to this, in much the same way as that of the Duke in My Last Duchess. Both narrators are chillingly dangerous because of their complete lack of moral awareness.