“The Moon” – A poem by Percy Bysshe Shelley

Context: In this short poem Percy B. Shelley (1792-1822) reflects upon the moon as a celestial body in the Sky which sometimes appears in a “gauzy veil”. First, he likens the moon to a dying Lady on her death bed. Pay some attention to this image. Is the moon always a woman when you think about various myths and legends describing the moon? In Germany and Scandinavia the moon is sometimes an old man, not a woman. Second, he describes some of the moon’s phases and wonders if the moon ever gets tired as it keeps on wandering the night sky. The line: “Out of her chambers” possibly means the moon is about to rise. It’s not a very positive view of the moon which is presented in this poem. The moon gazes on the earth, is pale, weary and wanders without a companion (unlike other celestial bodies). It contains both personification and fine allegory.

 

Themes: The moon; the phases

The Moon

 

And, like a dying lady lean and pale,
Who totters forth, wrapp’d in a gauzy veil,
Out of her chamber, led by the insane
And feeble wanderings of her fading brain,
The moon arose up in the murky east
A white and shapeless mass.

Art thou pale for weariness
Of climbing heaven and gazing on the earth,
Wandering companionless
Among the stars that have a different birth,
And ever changing, like a joyless eye
That finds no object worth its constancy?

“Bright Star” – A poem by John Keats

Context: This poem by John Keats (1795-1821) is fourteen lines long and is usually classified as a love poem. Surprisingly one most read through the very first eight lines before noticing that love is the major theme. It was written around 1819. It was officially published in 1838 in The Plymouth and Devonport Weekly Journal, 17 years after Keats’s death.

Themes: The poem addresses a “bright star” who is described as “steadfast”. In the rich field of metaphors and symbols the bright star could be either a personification or a star in the skies like Venus. In each case here the star in the poem is a representation of Love. Notice how Religion is present in the water with allusions to a sleepless Eremite with a priestly function. Pay attention on how everything takes on a more sensual tune in the lines: “Pillow’d upon my fair love’s ripening breast, To feel for ever its soft fall and swell,
Awake for ever in a sweet unrest”. It’s a bit sad Keats is about to stop because one is really curious what more could have happened if not “Death” had entered.

Bright Star

Bright star, would I were stedfast as thou art—
Not in lone splendour hung aloft the night
And watching, with eternal lids apart,
Like nature’s patient, sleepless Eremite,
The moving waters at their priestlike task
Of pure ablution round earth’s human shores,
Or gazing on the new soft-fallen mask
Of snow upon the mountains and the moors—
No—yet still stedfast, still unchangeable,
Pillow’d upon my fair love’s ripening breast,
To feel for ever its soft fall and swell,
Awake for ever in a sweet unrest,
Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath,
And so live ever—or else swoon to death.

john-keats

Sources:

Wikipedia [various entries]

 

“To One in Paradise” – A poem by Edgar Allan Poe

Context: The poemTo One in Paradise” (1833) is among Poe’s most well-known lines of lyric! It was first published without a title as part of the short story “The Visionary” (later renamed “The Assignation”). It evolved into “To Ianthe in Heaven” and then into “To One Beloved” before being named “To One in Paradise” in the February 25, 1843.

Themes: Take notice how the narrator in this poem presents the events in time and place. He has lost his love, she died. In the first lines he lingers on how beautiful everything was when she was alive. She was everything to him and he uses nature as a metaphor to describe her. Throughout the lines she is only known as ‘love’. But how well is she really described? She remains pretty anonymous to the reader. Is she really a person? Why does Poe bother to hide her personality? In the seventh line our narrator tells us “the dream was too bright to last” and that he clings to the past “mute” and “motionless”. Our narrator is mourning deeply – “The light of Life is over”. Just as in his most famous poem “The Raven” the famous words no more echoes three times. Only in the final lines we learn some of her characteristics, she had grey eyes and she keeps on dancing on eternal streams as the narrator continuous to dream in trances about her.

 Key words: Lost love, death, mourning, loss

To One in Paradise

Thou wast that all to me, love,
For which my soul did pine—
A green isle in the sea, love,
A fountain and a shrine,
All wreathed with fairy fruits and flowers,
And all the flowers were mine.

Ah, dream too bright to last!
Ah, starry Hope! that didst arise
But to be overcast!
A voice from out the Future cries,
“On! on!”—but o’er the Past
(Dim gulf!) my spirit hovering lies
Mute, motionless, aghast!

For, alas! alas! with me
The light of Life is o’er!
No more—no more—no more—
(Such language holds the solemn sea
To the sands upon the shore)
Shall bloom the thunder-blasted tree,
Or the stricken eagle soar!

And all my days are trances,
And all my nightly dreams
Are where thy grey eye glances,
And where thy footstep gleams—
In what ethereal dances,
By what eternal streams.

“To Sleep” – A poem by William Wordsworth

Context: William Wordsworth (1770-1850) is considered to be one of the most influential among the Romantic poets of British literature. Wikipedia states that “Wordsworth was Britain’s Poet Laureate from 1843 until his death from pleurisy on 23 April 1850.” In the 1790’s his career as a famous poet started and he wrote a lot of poetry. He also wrote autobiographical parts of poetry. Wikipedia once again: “The year 1793 saw the first publication of poems by Wordsworth, in the collections An Evening Walk and Descriptive Sketches. In 1795 he received a legacy of 900 pounds from Raisley Calvert and became able to pursue a career as a poet.” 

Themes: The major theme of this short poem (it’s considered short since Wordsworth usually wrote lenghty poems) is beyond any doubt sleeplessness or insomina. Follow the protagonist as he tries to count the sheep! We’ve all been there, we’ve all done that! This goes on in the first five lines. As he struggles to fall asleep he thinks of other sleepless nights and sadly there is no sleep this night either. Take notice once again on how Nature is present in the lines. Nature corresponds to the protagonist’s feeling throughout the poem.

To Sleep

 

A FLOCK of sheep that leisurely pass by 

One after one; the sound of rain, and bees 

Murmuring; the fall of rivers, winds and seas, 

Smooth fields, white sheets of water, and pure sky;— 

I’ve thought of all by turns, and still I lie

Sleepless; and soon the small birds’ melodies 

Must hear, first utter’d from my orchard trees, 

And the first cuckoo’s melancholy cry. 

Even thus last night, and two nights more I lay, 

And could not win thee, Sleep! by any stealth: 

So do not let me wear to-night away: 

Without Thee what is all the morning’s wealth? 

Come, blesséd barrier between day and day, 

Dear mother of fresh thoughts and joyous health! 

Sources

wikipedia.org (various entries)

Internet Archive (Wordsworth)

Early painting of Wordsworth at the start of his career as a poet in the 1790’s.

On Sleep – A monologue from Henry IV by William Shakespeare

King Henry IV on Sleep in the 3rd Act

In this quite lenghty monologue from Shakespeare’s Henry IV and the third act of the play; we encounter some thoughts on human sleep. This is portrayed through the voice and charachter of The king himself. This isn’t the only expressed thoughts on sleep that we encounter from the pen of Shakespeare. Sleep is a very human and common activity, but compared to Shakespeare’s own time and place – how often does modern plays and movies linger on this important theme today? Some questions we need to ask this monologue are:

  • What are the circumstances for this monologue? What has happened in the play?
  • Why is king Henry offering his thoughts on Sleep and how can we trace them?
  • Can we sense Henry’s own moods here? Is he happy, sad; or just being thoughtful about himself or any situation in particular?

Answering some of the questions above we see while reading that theking is very worried. Pay attention to the final line: “Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.” Just as in many other plays by Shakespeare, sleep is also associated with death. Compare the section with some of the lines from the play, The Tempest: “We are such stuff As dreams are made on; and our little life Is rounded with a sleep.” (IV Act, Scene 1) The play Henry IV is not about the king himself, but about his son, prince Hal who is the main protagonist. It’s one of Shakespeare’s historical plays and was finished before 1597.

Text

 

How many thousands of my poorest subjects
Are at this hour asleep! O sleep, O gentle sleep,
Nature’s soft nurse, how have I frightened thee,
That thou no more will weigh my eyelids down,
And steep my senses in forgetfulness?
Why rather, sleep, liest thou in smoky cribs,
Upon uneasy pallets stretching thee,
And hush’d with buzzing night-flies to thy slumber,
Than in the perfum’d chambers of the great,
Under the canopies of costly state,
And lull’d with sound of sweetest melody?
O thou dull god, why liest thou with the vile
In loathsome beds, and leav’st the kingly couch
A watch-case or a common ‘larum-bell?
Wilt thou upon the high and giddy mast
Seal up the ship-boy’s eyes, and rock his brains
In cradle of the rude imperious surge,
And in the visitation of the winds,
Who take the ruffian billows by the top,
Curling their monstrous heads, and hanging them
With deafing clamour in the slippery clouds,
That with the hurly death itself awakes?
Canst thou, O partial sleep, give thy repose
To the wet sea-boy in an hour so rude;
And in the calmest and most stillest night,
With all appliances and means to boot,
Deny it to a king? Then, happy low, lie down!
Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.

Sources

Open Source Shakespeare.org >> Shakespeare’s Pathos by J. F. Pyre. In Shakespeare Studies. Madison: University of Wisconsin.

 

Henry IV, first Folio 1623.

“The most beautiful Revelation” – A poem by Friedrich von Schiller

Context: This is a very short poem or Epigramm by the German poet Friedrich von Schiller (1759-1805). It was written in 1796 and printed a year later. Schiller is one of the most well-known German poets and most of us are familiar with the lines of “Ode an die Freude” which made it into Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Schiller was not only a great writer who later in life developed a friendship with Goethe, he was also a philosopher, physician, historian, and playwright. Together with Goethe they created a new literary and cultural movement, the Weimar Classicism. It was established as a new form of humanism, with influences  from Romanticism, Classicism, and the Age of Enlightenment. Some of the ideas are to be found in this short poem “Die schönste Erscheinung” which focus on beauty and feelings. Once again, my own humble translation into English.

Themes: Beauty, suffering and joy.

The most beautiful revelation

Did you never see beauty at the moment of suffering,
You have never seen beauty.
Did you never see joy in a beautiful face,
Never have you seen the joy!

Die schönste Erscheinung

Sahest du nie die Schönheit im Augenblick des Leidens,
Niemals hast du die Schönheit gesehn.
Sahst du die Freude nie in einem schönen Gesichte,
Niemals hast du die Freude gesehn!

Sources

Friedrich Schiller Archiv

wikipedia.org [various entries]

von Schiller.

“The Footfalls of Memory” – A poem by T.S Eliot

Context: T.S Eliot (1888-1965) born Thomas Stearns Eliot in Missouri, was an English-American writer of plays, poetry and Essays. He was educated at Harvard and did graduate work in philosophy at the Sorbonne, Harvard, and Merton College, Oxford. He finally settled in England and became a teacher. In 1927 Eliot became a british citizen. Eliot was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1948 with the motivation: “for his outstanding, pioneer contribution to present-day poetry”. His most famous cycle of poetry is perhaps The Waste Land. The poem “The Footfalls of Memory” was published in Four Quartets and contains four poems  produced between 1935-1942. It appears in the poem Burnt Norton (1935).

Themes: Memory, time, past and present

 

The Footfalls of Memory

 

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.

What might have been is an abstraction
Remaining a perpetual possibility
Only in a world of speculation.
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.

Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened
Into the rose-garden. My words echo
Thus, in your mind.

T.S Eliot (1888-1965) {Photo credit: wikipedia.org}

 

Sources

The poem is reproduced from Four Quartets available through wikiquote.

wikipedia.org (various entries)

Nobelprize.org