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
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,
Among the stars that have a different birth,
And ever changing, like a joyless eye
That finds no object worth its constancy?
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, 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.
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.
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;—
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.
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.
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.
The poem is reproduced from Four Quartetsavailable through wikiquote.
Context: William Shakespeare (1564-1616) needs no further introduction. This sonnet makes fun of the ideals of love. In the final sentence the narrator describes his love for the woman or “mistress” as something that is rare and wish not to compare her to other things associated with love. He’s also ironical. In the previous lines we read: “I love to hear her speak, yet well I know That music hath a far more pleasing sound”. Deeply influenced by the Petrarchan way of writing the perfect poem and the ideal Petrarchan woman in a poem is a goddess. Notice how Shakespeare play with this ideal. His woman, his mistress doesn’t fulfill the ideal. Pay attention to this line: “I grant I never saw a goddess go; My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground:”.
Themes: satire of conventional love, female beauty, irony
Words: dun = dull brownish gray; belied = misrepresented
My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lips’ red;
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
I have seen roses damask’d, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound;
I grant I never saw a goddess go;
My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground:
And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
As any she belied with false compare.
Sir Walter Scott (1771 – 1832) was a Scottish historical novelist, playwright and poet. Many of his works remain classics of both English-language literature and of Scottish literature. Famous titles include Ivanhoe, Rob Roy, Old Mortality, The Lady of the Lake, Waverley, The Heart of Midlothian and The Bride of Lammermoor.
Walter Scott’s poem Lindisfarne is very much like a travel description of the Northumberland area starting a few miles from Lindisfarne in Tynemouth outside Newcastle upon Tyne, believe it or not. The 6th line mentions Tynemouth’s priory and bay. From here the poem travels further along the coast up to Bamburgh. And from Bamburgh to Lindisfarne. In fact, one can see Lindisfarne from the Bamburgh Castle which is also mentioned in the poem as king Ida’s Castle.
Holy Island has a recorded history from the 6th century AD. It was an important centre of Celtic Christianity under Saints Aidan of Lindisfarne, Cuthbert, Eadfrith of Lindisfarne and Eadberht of Lindisfarne. After the Viking invasions and the Norman conquest of England, a priory was reestablished. A small castle was built on the island in 1550.
I travelled through Newcastle, Tynemouth, Bamburgh and Holy Island in 2011. All photos by me in this post.
Scott’s poem – First lines
AND now the vessel skirts the strand
Of mountainous Northumberland;
Towns, towers, and halls successive rise,
And catch the nuns’ delighted eyes.
Monk-Wearmouth soon behind them lay, 
And Tynemouth’s priory and bay;
They marked, amid her trees, the hall
Of lofty Seaton-Delaval;
They saw the Blythe and Wansbeck floods
Rush to the sea through sounding woods; 
They passed the tower of Widdrington,
Mother of many a valiant son;
At Coquet Isle their beads they tell
To the good saint who owned the cell;
Then did the Alne attention claim, 
And Warkworth, proud of Percy’s name;
And next they crossed themselves to hear
The whitening breakers sound so near,
Where, boiling through the rocks, they roar
On Dunstanborough’s caverned shore; 
Thy tower, proud Bamborough, marked they there, King Ida’s castle, huge and square,
From its tall rock look grimly down,
And on the swelling ocean frown;
Then from the coast they bore away, 
And reached the Holy Island’s bay.
IN THE second section of the poem Scott describes the sorrounding nature of Lindisfarne and mentions the tide as well.
Second section of Scott’s poem
The tide did now its flood-mark gain,
And girdled in the saint’s domain:
For, with the flow and ebb, its style
Varies from continent to isle; 
Dry-shod, o’er sands, twice every day,
The pilgrims to the shrine find way;
Twice every day, the waves efface
Of staves and sandalled feet the trace.
As to the port the galley flew, 
Higher and higher rose to view
The castle with its battled walls,
The ancient monastery’s halls,
A solemn, huge, and dark red pile,
Placed on the margin of the isle. 
The Lindisfarne castle is located in what was once the very volatile border area between England and Scotland. Not only did the English and Scots fight, but the area was frequently attacked by Vikings. The castle was built in 1550, around the time that Lindisfarne Priory went out of use. The raids of the Vikings is mentioned in the third and final section of Scott’s poem.
Third section of Scott’s poem
In Saxon strength that abbey frowned,
With massive arches broad and round,
That rose alternate, row and row,
On ponderous columns, short and low,
Built ere the art was known, 
By pointed aisle and shafted stalk,
The arcades of an alleyed walk
To emulate in stone.
On the deep walls the heathen Dane
Had poured his impious rage in vain; 
And needful was such strength to these,
Exposed to the tempestuous seas,
Scourged by the winds’ eternal sway,
Open to rovers fierce as they,
Which could twelve hundred years withstand 
Winds, waves, and Northern pirates’ hand.
Not but that portions of the pile,
Rebuilded in a later style,
Showed where the spoiler’s hand had been;
Not but the wasting sea-breeze keen 
Had worn the pillar’s carving quaint,
And mouldered in his niche the saint,
And rounded, with consuming power,
The pointed angles of each tower;
Yet still entire the abbey stood, 
Like veteran, worn, but unsubdued.