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Category Archives: Analysis of Poems.

Analysis of all the poems in the Edexcel O level Specification (2008)

If by Rudyard Kipling

If you can keep your head when all about you   
    Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,  
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
    But make allowance for their doubting too;  
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
    Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
    And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:

 

If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;   
    If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;  
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
    And treat those two impostors just the same;  
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
    Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
    And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:

 

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
    And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
    And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
    To serve your turn long after they are gone,  
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
     Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’

 

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,  
    Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
    If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
    With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,  
    And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!

Rudyard Kipling’s If is a much beloved poem even today, more than a hundred years after its publication in 1910. It is a didactic poem, a flow of advice from a father to his young son – an instruction manual almost – on how to live life. Throughout the poem, Kipling, in true British fashion, preaches moderation in all things big and small. The repetition of pronouns such as ‘you’ and ‘your’ give an enhanced personal feeling to us as the readers, as if the poet is talking directly to us. It is only in the last line do we realize that it is his son whom the poet is addressing throughout the poem.

In the first stanza the poet warns of external situations which can throw off a person’s inner self confidence. He tells his son there will come a time when he will be faced with confusing and hostile situations in his life when everyone is in a panic and blame has fallen on his shoulders. At such a time the poet urges him to remain steadfast and calm. Detachment from criticism is important, so that it doesn’t hinder his mental health, but he cannot afford to disregard criticism completely. Kipling instructs his son to always make room for the unfavourable ideas of his critics as it is only by being aware of his weaknesses can he truly be strong. Going on to line 5, the poet stresses how despite being surrounded by incompetence and dishonesty, he must always remain patient and true, with the strength of character to be able to distance himself from partaking in petty feelings of hatred and resentment. But it is the last line of the first stanza which preaches the core virtue that the poet carries forward in the poem: that of humility. Despite being morally superior to those around him, he must take care never to let pride take over.
The next stanza focuses on internalized conflicts. Again we see a strict adherence to the mean in the poet’s advices: He instructs his son to dream without letting his dreams control him, to plan ahead without making his plans his only goals in life. He should possess the sense of mind to not let failure get him down or triumph lull him into a false sense of security. Both these things are ‘imposters’ and mean little in the grand scheme of things. No matter what he faces, either success or loss, his attitude should remain unchanged. This is where the poem takes a slightly darker tone as the poet describes how there will come a time where his son would have to stand by and watch all that he has worked for fall into undeserving hands, and hear the words that he himself had spoken used for nefarious purposes. The poet urges him to remain firm when such situations arise. These are things which would then be out of his control, and there would be no use fighting the inevitable corruption of all the good that he had done. Instead he should persevere and rebuild everything that he loses using worn out tools of labour.
The third stanza emphasizes the classic idea of hard work taking precedence over everything else. The poet tells his son that he should be bold enough to gamble everything he has for something he believes in, and to have the strength of character to start again from scratch in case it doesn’t work out and he loses it all, all the while maintaining his dignity and not bemoaning his loss. He must toil and work hard if he wants to make a difference even when there’s nothing left in him to give except his unbroken will which urges him to carry on.
In the last stanza the poet first describes the kind of attitude his son should have towards all the kinds of people he would meet in life: he should not forget his honesty when faced with large convincing masses of people or lose his humility when amidst important and dignified members of society. He should be a friend to all, but not let anyone get so close that they could hurt him. In all things, Kipling advises his son to be moderate; but when it comes to showing compassion when faced by a redeemed foe, the poet’s counsel to his son is to seize the time that he has and be the better man by forgiving those who have wronged him.
In the last two lines, the tension which had been building up throughout the poem is finally released. Every man’s time is limited on this world and the poet wants his son to use every single minute to its full potential and achieve as much as he can in the time that he has been granted.
The poet states that when his son has done all that he has outlined, then he would have gained everything that the world has to offer. Moreover, he would have finally grown up, and matured enough to be a Man.

The poem makes use of several literary devices, the most evident of which is repetition. The word ‘If’ is repeated throughout the poem as one by one Kipling outlines the complex actions that his son must take when faced with various situations. It creates a sort of hypnotic tension throughout the poem, like as if it was one long sentence, and thus the last line has such an impact on the reader. Other than that, there are paradoxical ideas throughout the poem: ‘trust yourself when all men doubt you, but make allowance for their doubting too;’ ‘if all men count with you but none too much.’ These paradoxes serve to highlight Kipling’s message of balancing out all kinds of emotions for a rounded out moral character. Moreover, in the second stanza, we see examples of personification: Dreams are masters which can make one their slave, Triumph and Disaster are both imposters. Both are fleeting and ephemeral things; Triumph lulling the supposed victor in a false sense of security, and Disaster, threatening to uproot one’s belief in one’s own abilities and destroying self-confidence. Meanwhile ‘Will’ is the encouragement that one needs to hold on and not let go. We also see instances of words which symbolize ideas: ‘crowds’ are common people, ‘Kings’ are important people and the ‘common touch’ is the humble attitude that the poet wants his son to adopt when he encounters all these people. The last line uses the metaphorical concept of time waiting for no man as the poet instructs his son to make the most of every single ‘unforgiving minute.’

The poem is a didactic monologue set in four eight line stanzas with all of them having some internal rhythm. As is usual with such monologues though, it does not follow a definite rhyming scheme. The tone throughout the poem is that which a benevolent mentor would adopt for his protégé. The poet is experienced and learned in the ways of life and his only aim is to instruct his son in the same.

To say that If is a poem which everyone can relate to is a gross understatement which does not do the eternal and universal message that the poem preaches any justice whatsoever. All his life, Kipling wrote numerous texts, both poetry and prose, intending to inspire the minds of the youth. On reading If, one can safely say that he succeeded in doing exactly that. The poet wants to impart several virtues to his son: that of patience, honesty, fortitude of character, dignity, humility and compassion to name a few, but he does not use any of these empty words with loaded meanings. Instead he outlines scenarios and situations which his son would face in life and instructs him on how to behave when each arises. Thus his message holds more meaning than any string of words could have for it seems like it is coming from someone who has been through what he is talking about, who has practiced what he is now preaching. It is empowering, enlightening and enchanting all at once.

The poem also serves as a comment on society, a morally corrupt and degenerate one at that, from which Kipling wants his son to remain untarnished. He automatically assumes that all the world around him is a treacherous and vapid void; something which requires heavy guidance and discipline to traverse through. His son would be surrounded by those who falsely accuse him, doubt his integrity, twist his words, cheat and lie to him and decimate everything that he stands for; and it is up to his son to follow the advice of his father and wade through the decadence of such a society. This might be a touch pessimistic on Kipling’s part, especially since he wants to teach his son to not lose hope when faced with adversity. Such a negative view about the world in general can only stem from quite a hopeless place.

Aptly titled “If”, the poem basically outlines all the conditions that the son has to fulfill in order to gain the status of a ‘Man’. One might argue that Kipling’s expectations, from the viewpoint of a father, are too unrealistic and demanding. One cannot possibly fulfill everything the poem outlines, and unless his son does so he will not have become a man in his father’s eyes: quite a harsh predicament for any child. It seems that his son is destined to disappoint him no matter how hard he tries.

Several paradoxical ideas can be found throughout the poem. For instance in the first two stanzas, Kipling talks about the moral and practical way of living life. In the third stanza he contradicts his own devotion to achieving balance and insists that his son should be impetuous enough to gamble away everything he has on a throw of the dice. It might be teaching self-reliance, flexibility and adaptability in that the son believes in himself enough to take a stand; but it is also impulsive and rash, in complete contradiction to what Kipling has been preaching so far.

Coming to the virtue of humility that Kipling wants to instil in his son, another contradiction arises. The son is told to ‘talk with crowds but keep his virtue,’ to be compassionate enough to empathise with every man, but to remain aloof and detached enough to not allow anyone to cause hurt him emotionally. How can someone who should ‘not look too good nor talk too wise’ remain at the same time distinct from the ‘common man’ he is supposed to empathise with. On closer inspection one finds that for a poem which puts so much emphasis on bland humility, there is an undertone of haughtiness throughout: Kipling assumes that his son would be better than everyone around him, reflecting what he thinks of himself. He is dishing out advice from a high pedestal which he has put himself on, assuming the role of the final, definitive, totalitarian authority on how his son should live his life.

This brings to mind another contradiction: Kipling assures his son that only once he has followed the set of instructions that he has outlined, would he be mature enough to be considered a Man in his own right. But shouldn’t the basic requirement of being a man be that he should be able to make decisions for himself, to learn from his own experiences and mistakes, to stand on his own feet and evolve. The poem does not allow any space for that. By providing his son with instructions of what to do in every situation that he has ever faced with in life on a platter, Kipling is crippling his ability to think for himself and is intent on dictating his son’s life and moulding him into the perfect image of the upper-class, stiff, English, stereotypical Man.

Thus the poem’s existence itself contradicts its message.

 
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Posted by on March 11, 2015 in Analysis of Poems., LIterature

 

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Poetry Analysis: An Unknown Girl- Moniza Alvi.

In the evening bazaar
Studded with neon
An unknown girl
Is hennaing my hand
She squeezes a wet brown line
Form a nozzle
She is icing my hand,
Which she steadies with her
On her satin peach knee.
In the evening bazaar
For a few rupees
An unknown girl is hennaing my hand
As a little air catches
My shadow stitched kameez
A peacock spreads its lines
Across my palm.
Colours leave the street
Float up in balloons.
Dummies in shop-fronts
Tilt and stare
With their western perms.
Banners for Miss India 1993
For curtain cloth
And sofa cloth
Canopy me.
I have new brown veins.
In the evening bazaar
Very deftly
An unknown girl
is hennaing my hand
I am clinging
To these firm peacock lines
Like people who cling
to sides of a train.
Now the furious streets
Are hushed.
I’ll scrape off
The dry brown lines
Before I sleep,
Reveal soft as a snail trail
The amber bird beneath.
It will fade in a week.
When India appears and reappears
I’ll lean across a country
With my hands outstretched
Longing for the unknown girl
In the neon bazaar.

An Unknown Girl is about Moniza Alvi’s attempt to find her place in a country to which she does belong to but which she cannot call her own.

The poems starts with a description of the setting: it is an evening in a market place where neon signs are the main source of lightening. As the persona sits, perhaps in a stall, getting her hand decorated by henna by a mysterious ‘unknown’ girl who works for a few rupees. As time passes and colors fade away, the persona imagines that the mannequins in the shop windows are staring at her. As the design is completed and a peacock unfurls its feathers on the palm of her hand, the persona feels that she has achieved a new identity, with the henna running in her veins. She desperately tries to hold on to the intricate lines of henna unwilling to let go and she thinks that despite the fact that when she removes the dried henna from her palm that night and even when the design fades away in a week, she will still remember the experience, the feeling of belonging, and long for it in her dreams.

This poem is written in free verse but makes use of many other literary techniques to further emphasize the message. Ethnic words such as ‘bazaar’, ‘henna’, ‘shalwar kameez’ give an exotic feel to the place, which one finds out later is a market place in India. The girl who is applying the henna comes across as almost sensual in her mysteriousness: she is a deft worker, clad in satin, artistically creating designs and patterns. The passing of time is described in a metaphor which again because of the implicit imagery provoke the reader’s senses: ‘the colors which float up in balloons.’ This creates a gradually darkening atmosphere as it grows late and the evening turns to night.

The contradictory feelings that the persona feels as she sits in the bazaar are brilliantly portrayed in the metaphorical description of the dummies with western perms turning their heads and staring at the persona as she tries her best to fit into a culture not quite her own. At this point it is safe to assume that the persona depicted is Alvi herself. Having origins in two different countries-Pakistan and Britain, but having been brought up in London, Alvi might as well be writing about herself when she talks of a girl who tries desperately to find her roots in an almost foreign culture, a fact which becomes evident in the metaphoric statement that she has ‘brown veins.’

The year becomes evident as a contrast is presented between the previous traditional scene by the description of the banners of ‘Miss India’ which adorn the street. Alvi feels such a sense of belonging at the time, sitting in that bazaar that she feels like as if the curtain cloth hanging in the windows of shops is covering her, engulfing and accepting her. She tries to hold on to this feeling metaphorically describing her unwillingness to let go similar to that of those people who ride on the sides of trains, as is common for villagers to do in India and Pakistan.
Again the passage of time is described by the fading of noise, proving the auditory sense of the reader. The previous hum of activity described recedes as the bazaar becomes quiet and the future tense is used to show Alvi’s thoughts as she muses on how despite the fact that the color on her hand will fade away, she shall always remember the time she felt that she really belonged to her country, and will yearn for the reoccurrence of the feeling in her dreams.

After analyzing the poem at great depth it becomes apparent that the title is not only for the girl who is applying the henna, who remains unnamed and therefore unknown throughout. Rather it can also define the persona, and thus Moniza Alvi herself, as she is a stranger amidst her own people on account of having lived her whole life elsewhere.

The dilemma which she is faced with is in today’s world a common phenomenon with bi-cultural marriages becoming more and more common. What Alvi feels, the sense of detachment from either of the two countries she belongs to is something that most of us can relate to as we are the generation which was born to parents who immigrated to other countries and therefore have lived all our lives in a foreign home. Such people do not feel that they wholly belong anywhere. The place where they have lived all their lives and that which they call home isn’t really enough as they would always have a different set of origins calling out to them; and the quest to find one’s roots and culture leaves one not only dissatisfied, but also all the more desolate and alone. Neither country will whole heartedly accept them, nor can they accept only one country. They are torn between two worlds, two different realities, each of which constitutes half of their identity. Thus their sense of self is shaken, and even lost as their identities are torn apart, distanced by oceans and deserts.

 
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Posted by on May 28, 2012 in Analysis of Poems., LIterature

 

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Poetry Analysis: Disabled, Wilfred Owen.

This is a poem done on request for Manda. Hope you and all others who are looking for it find it useful.

Disabled

He sat in a wheeled chair, waiting for dark,
And shivered in his ghastly suit of grey,
Legless, sewn short at elbow. Through the park
Voices of boys rang saddening like a hymn,
Voices of play and pleasure after day,
Till gathering sleep had mothered them from him.

About this time Town used to swing so gay
When glow-lamps budded in the light blue trees,
And girls glanced lovelier as the air grew dim,-
In the old times, before he threw away his knees.
Now he will never feel again how slim
Girls’ waists are, or how warm their subtle hands.
All of them touch him like some queer disease.

There was an artist silly for his face,
For it was younger than his youth, last year.
Now, he is old; his back will never brace;
He’s lost his colour very far from here,
Poured it down shell-holes till the veins ran dry,
And half his lifetime lapsed in the hot race
And leap of purple spurted from his thigh.

One time he liked a blood-smear down his leg,
After the matches, carried shoulder-high.
It was after football, when he’d drunk a peg,
He thought he’d better join. – He wonders why.
Someone had said he’d look a god in kilts,
That’s why; and maybe, too, to please his Meg,
Aye, that was it, to please the giddy jilts
He asked to join. He didn’t have to beg;
Smiling they wrote his lie: aged nineteen years.

Germans he scarcely thought of; all their guilt,
And Austria’s, did not move him. And no fears
Of Fear came yet. He drought of jewelled hills
For daggers in plaid socks; of smart salutes;
And care of arms; and leave; and pay arrears;
Esprit de corps; and hints for young recruits.
And soon, he was drafted out with drums and cheers.

Some cheered him home, but not as crowds cheer Goal.
Only a solemn man who brought him fruits
Thanked him; and then enquired about his soul.

Now, he will spend a few sick years in institutes,
And do what things the rules consider wise,
And take whatever pity they may dole.
Tonight he noticed how the women’s eyes
Passed from him to the strong men that were whole.
How cold and late it is! Why don’t they come
And put him into bed? Why don’t they come?

Wilfred Owen

Analysis:

Owen’s ‘Disabled’ explores the effects of war on those who live through it by comparing the present life of an injured soldier to his past hopes and accomplishments.

The first stanza starts with the depressing description of a lone man sitting in a wheelchair, in a park, being unable to walk or indulge in any of the activities involving exercise going around him. His is dressed formally, but his suit is cut at the waist, which shows that he has lost his legs, and he waits helplessly, listening to the voices of young children which sadden him, as they remind him of something he can’t ever have again.
Then he remembers what his life had been like before his injury: at this time of the night, after the work had been done for the day, the town had come to life at night. He remembers how the streets used to light up and how the girls would become more inviting and alluring. He regrets losing his legs, for he knows that he will never again dance holding a woman, or feel their soft slight touches, as they now only touch him out of pity, like as if he is a strange abnormality in their normal life.
He remembers once there was such vitality, such sheer life in him that an artist had been insistent on drawing his face, for just a year ago, it spoke of innocence and clarity of heart. But now his face has become withered with experience and sorrow, and he can’t even support himself, both literally and figuratively. He has become pale, as if all his life had been leached out of him through the wound on his thighs, and he feels that half of his life is already over.
He remembers how before he had become disabled, he had been a renowned football player, and had been proud of the blood smear on his leg which had resulted from a match, and how the crowd had carried him on their shoulders, celebrating his valor and excellence. It was after such a match itself that, drunk on alcohol, pride and his success, he had thought first of enlisting in the army, just to appear more manlike to the ladies as someone had suggested he would look dashing in a uniform. Thus out of mere pride and vanity, had he joined the war, even going as far as to lie about his age: a fact that shows one that the ex-soldier in discussion might still be a very young man, maybe only in his early twenties.
The motive behind joining the war is questioned, as the soldier remembers that he had never ben patriotic enough to care much about the invading Germans or Austrians, and he had been young and naïve enough to not be afraid of fear yet. He had thought only of the distant lands he would travel to; the honor and glory associated with the army; the excitement and exhilaration of holding a gun and hiding a dagger; and the pride of giving a smart salute. He was drafted and sent overseas with much ado; lots of people cheered and celebrated his valor and courage, reminiscent of the football matches he had won.
The soldier is rudely brought back to reality as he remembers how out of the many people who had applauded his departure, few had been there on his return, and all his accomplishments in the war were forgotten as instead of encouraging his deeds, the people pitied his loss, and the fame and glory he had expected were denied him. Only a sole aged man visits him now and inquires about his life and health.
It is now that sitting alone in the park, noticing how women’s eyes pass over him after glancing at him piteously, to men who are still whole and complete, the ex-soldier thinks about his future. He knows he will live in an institute were there will be people to take care for him, and he will do as they say, following their rules to live the rest of his life. He wonders in the end helplessly, that why has no one come looking for him, to put him to bed. It has grown late and cold, but there is nothing the man can do to protect and warm himself, except hope and pray that someone would remember him and take care of him.

Disabled is a potent and strong poem because of mainly the style and structure that Owen has used. Harsh words are used subtly to emphasize meaning behind the poem: the man is wearing a ‘ghastly suit of grey’, showing his morbid and depressed state of mind; sleep ‘mothers’ him from the laughter and noises of young boys, suggesting that he no longer finds the pleasures of life worth living for and prefers the temporary respite sleep provides. He regrets ‘throwing’ away his knees, suggesting and later confirming that the ideas and inspirations behind joining the war were not as patriotic or loyal as they should have been, and his vanity only has now left him a cripple. The girls all touch him like a ‘queer’ disease: the word ‘queer’ had started being used to describe homosexuals, so to think his social standing is the same as those considered, in those times, to be an unnatural blasphemy, is extremely revealing on how people think of disabled people. The imagery of his life bleeding out of him through the wound on his thigh, and the use of the word ‘purple’, a colour denoting life and vitality, shows that the ordeal the soldier had gone through when he had been injured had a deep impact on him, as he no longer feels alive or has any desire to live. The analogy drawn between playing sports and being a soldier in a war, though by no means new, is nevertheless effective. Along with highlighting the egoistic and vain motives the man had for joining the army, it also acts as a reminder to him that his pride had caused him the exact thing he had been proud of: he would never again run in a field or score a winning goal, he would never again be praised for being a hero; only pitied endlessly for being a cripple. The things which he used to boast about: the wounds received in a match, and being carried on the shoulders of his team mates; have become permanent sources of sorrow: he no longer has his legs, and cannot help but be carried around helplessly. This contrast is both chilling and distressing.

The structure of the poem: the frequent switches between present and past and the juxtaposition of remembrance and realization casts a harsh light on everything the soldier has lost. Each stanza starts with describing the soldier’s present conditions and then compares it to his past life, or vice versa. The final stanza however depicts what he thinks his future holds for him: a life lived by rules set by other people, a life of utter dependency and helplessness.

Considering Owen’s own discharge from the army due to neurological problem, the poem carries considerable weight as it must have been written from direct observation. Perhaps this is why the words ring so true: the man in the wheelchair had been no patriotic passionate youth ready to die for his country. Rather he had been, more realistically, a vain and egoistic man seeking glory and recognition through the war, caring only of how he would look in uniform, and how the fairer sex would react to him. There are no medals and endless people doting on him when he returns disfigured and destroyed: there is only a wheelchair, and a few people with pitiful looks. Instead of celebrating his heroism and applauding his contribution to the war, the people all express their sorrow for his loss, making him feel even more unworthy and pathetic.

Something which keeps recurring in his recollections of the life he used to live before the war is his active and successful interaction with women. He was a very appealing figure, lively and exuberant, enjoying all the ladies’ attentions, and living his life to the fullest. Now he is left sexually incompetent and can no longer derive pleasure from the very things which had once been such a comfort to him. The last lines highlight this deplorable state: Gone is the man who used to lead and win matches singlehandedly, and left in his place is a lifeless and hopeless shell who pleads desperately and helplessly for someone to appear and put him to bed.

The poem is one of the most reputed protests against war as it not only shows the meaningless of it, and the wastage of life caused by it, but also highlights the after effects it has on those who live through it and survive it, returning home maimed either physically or troubled mentally, unable to get over the horrors they had seen and experienced. It shows not only the soldiers but also the people they interact with, providing a strong comment on society who considers the man who has sacrificed his very being for his country, to be ‘whole’, and thinks that his disability makes him less of a person than he was before. It is sad to the point of being depressing and frank to the point of being unsettling. It disturbs one, just as it moves one. One sympathizes with the man’s helplessness despite being repelled by his selfishness.

Owen’s Disabled is a force to be reckoned with.

 
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Posted by on March 24, 2012 in Analysis of Poems.

 

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Poetry Analysis: Refugee Blues-W. H. Auden.

The following analysis has been done in answer to a request sent by Amanthi. I hope you find it satisfactory and that this helps with preparing for your exams.

Auden’s ‘Refugee Blues’ laments the plight of the Jews who were forced to flee Europe when the Holocaust started and they were rounded up and killed or imprisoned under the cruel regime of Hitler.
The poem starts with a narrator, who is later revealed to be a German Jew, describing a large city which is home to ten million people some of whom are well off and live in luxurious large houses while others make do in slums and shabby houses. Yet, the narrator tells the person with him, presumably a woman, that there is no place for them there. He remembers that they once had a country long ago, speaking of Palestine, and they thought the world of it. But now their own country is so distant to them that to see it they have to browse through an atlas and he knows that they can’t go there either.
The narrator then remarks on how every spring the flowers grow anew on the old tree that grows in the village churchyard, and mourns to his companion that old passports can’t renew themselves, remembering how the country where they wanted to go had rejected them saying that they were as good as dead if they didn’t have updated passports. It seems that it is their misfortune that they are still among the living, considering his dejected tone as he addresses his companion. He remembers how when he had gone to the people who had been made responsible for providing the war refugees homes, they had been polite to him, yet hadn’t been able to help him, having their hands tied because of the politics and had told him to return next year. Recalling a public meeting that he had attended, he remembers that a person had accused them of trying to steal away the livelihood of the occupants of the city by barging in, and informs his companion that that man had been talking of them.
He thinks that he heard the rumbling of an imminent storm, but it turned out to be Hitler sentencing them all to death. He sees a dog securely wrapped in a warm jacket, and a cat get inside a car, the door of which had been held open for it and thinks that they are lucky that they aren’t German Jews. He notices the fish swimming freely in the water at the harbor and the birds flying wherever they want in the skies when he goes to the woods and marvels at them not having any politicians and wars as they were not human beings.
He then tells his companion that he had had a dream in which he saw a magnificent building which could accommodate a thousand people yet there was no place for them in it anywhere. He remembers how when he stood on the plains and looked through the falling snow, he could see a thousand soldiers marching towards them, looking for them, to put them away, to kill them.

The language used in the poem is as simple as the message behind it is complex. Auden uses the refrain at the end of each stanza, customary for a blues song, each a dejected realization in its own by the narrator of his and every other refugee sorry plight. Hitler’s command for all Jews to be killed is personified as the rumbling of thunder which can be heard just before lightning strikes and the world descends into the chaos of a political storm. Simple analogies have been used such as that of the birds and fish flying and swimming freely and pets being treated better than the Jews have been used to convey the low position these rejected people, in terms that they understand.

Conveying the utter lost and pathetic state of the German Jewish refugees who had been forced to leave their homes and find sanctuary in other countries. For a few years these people had been welcomed into other countries and given meager yet sustainable jobs and accommodations. But then as war threatened to break out and Hitler’s word became law in Germany, these people were no longer allowed entry into other countries, and were persecuted in their own. They were called sub-humans, a term which Auden explores by making the narrator realize that the animals he sees are treated better than them because they aren’t German Jews. The sense of being hunted, of being sought out, persecuted is apparent throughout the poem, as one by one all the doors to a better future are shut on the narrator’s face and it reaches its climax in the last stanza when the narrator witnesses the thousands of people who are raging war against his people, imprisoning them and killing them. The inhumanity with which Jews were treated during those times and the Holocaust and its terrible tales which few lived to tell are already well known today, but this poem highlights what these people must have felt, when they had no place to call home, nowhere to go and no one to turn to.

It is a chilling and depressing poem which reminds one of the extents to which humanity can fall, becoming beasts, thirsty for each other’s blood and lives. Many poets have tried to capture the anguish and cruelty of war, some have succeeded, but only a handful have mastered it to the extent that there words are forever reminders to mankind; reminders which, with the increasing religious intolerance and biased prejudices have become all the more important in today’s world.

 
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Posted by on January 17, 2012 in Analysis of Poems.

 

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Poetry Analysis: La belle Dame sans Merci- John Keats.

La Belle Dame sans Merci, one of John Keats last works, is a ballad which tells the story of a knight who fell in love with a mystical creature, and now suffers the aftermath of a broken heart.

The poem starts with the poet finding a solitary knight stumbling around the countryside. The scene of autumn is described: No grass grows on the river banks, the chirping birds are absent, squirrels and other animals have hoarded food to sustain them throughout winter, and the harvest season is over. The poet wonders what sickness has gripped the knight, making him look so exhausted and miserable. He seems to be in a terrible condition: the color is fast fading from his cheeks and his forehead glistens with sweat, contrasting with his increasing pallor. An aura of mystery surrounds the scene, and one cannot help but wonder what a knight, a man used to action and surviving in harsh conditions, is doing walking aimlessly around the moor, and what is it that has befallen him to reduce him to such a pitiful state.
With the fourth stanza the knight starts to tell his tale: He had met a beautiful maiden in the meadows. She was the most beautiful thing he had cast eyes upon, with long flowing hair and a soft unearthly grace which led him to believe that she must be a fairy treading the earth. Her eyes however had struck him as sad and doleful as if she was mourning something.
He tells the poet how she joined him on his horse and they rode together. He had eyes only for her and did not notice anything else, for she was receptive of his attentions and sang to him sweetly. He tried to woo her by making garlands and bracelets out of flowers and she gazed at him lovingly, giving him delectable things to eat such as sweet roots and wild honey. She spoke in a different dialect yet he was sure that she told him that she loved him with all her heart.
The sense of suspense and mystery is further elevated in the reader by now: although one had expected a lady to feature prominently in the Knight’s endeavors, it was not common practice for upper class ladies to be wandering around the countryside without an escort, and be as forthcoming and immodest as to sing and moan to a stranger whom she has just met. Who is this woman and where did she come from?
Some questions are answered when the knight mentions that the lady then took him to her elfin grot, and the reader realizes that the lady is an actual fairy, a supernatural being that the knight has fallen in love with. The knight remembers that she looked at him sadly as he kissed her wild troubled eyes to sleep. As they slept together on the hill side, the knight had a dream: he saw the deathly visions of kings, princes and warriors, with gnarled lips and ghastly figures. They all cried out to him, warning him that the lady has no mercy and he is in her trap now as well. That is when he awoke and found himself alone and on the verge of death, without any sign on his lover in sight. He has been wandering the land ever since, hoping either for his lady to return or for death to embrace him.

Thus the knight’s story comes to an end and his state of depression and sickness is explained: he has fallen victim to a lover’s betrayal and abandonment. But the lady remains still an enigma, both to the poet and the reader. Though on first look, the woman appears to be the classic example of the attention seeking selfish lady who mercilessly leads unwary young men to believe that she loves them and then deserts them, alone in their grief. But on deeper study it’s found that there’s a lot more to her character: her eyes are sad and wild, her sighs sorrowful and her gaze mournful. Could it be that she is as unfortunate as her victims, bound by fate to travel the earth and fall in love with mortals again and again only to have to desert them as they could not be her match? The beauty of the story is that this question remains forever unanswered; one can derive one’s own analysis about her, but never know for sure who she really was.

Other than the constant creation of suspense and the thick aura of mystery which drapes the ballad and its characters, Keats has also used other figures of speech to further intensify the exquisiteness of his poems. In relating the sickness of the knight he compared he metaphorically describes his pale complexion as a ‘lily on his brow’ and his fading color as a ‘fast withering rose.’ The first few stanzas are also rich with imagery as the poet draws the autumn scene of the desolate and lonely moors and the solitary knight in the reader’s head.
The most basic ‘moral’ of this story of woe is the dangers of heady, passionate love in which one can get carried away and the imminent heart break which follows every such transient affair. The knight was too impulsive in falling head over heels for a strange woman, and he had to pay the price for his impetuosity.
However, one could also argue that Keats wrote this poem as a dedicated tribute to absolute beauty. The knight had no desire to live on after once finding and losing the epitome of beauty in the lovely enchantress. Materialistic beauty is captivating yet ephemeral, and every being that strives to find it, has to be prepared for losing it too, that is the revenge of time. Those who fail to realize that soon find out that no meaning remains in anything else afterwards.
Another quite somber interpretation of the poem is that it shows the outcome of every idealist romantic who believes in true and eternal love, casting a harsh light on the fact, that love is, no matter how pure, never immortal. It cannot last forever and has to eventually bow down before either time or death.

This poem is, not unlike most of Keats’s work, a personal favorite both for being gorgeous in its language and story, and thought provoking in its poetical philosophy.

 
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Posted by on January 16, 2012 in Analysis of Poems.

 

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Analysis: Telephone Conversation by Wole Soyinka.

Soyinka’s Telephone Conversation depicts a conversation between a white lady and an African American man which casts a harsh light on the racism and prejudice which grips society.

The title reveals the fact that two people are talking on the phone, so the beginning of the poem is on a positive note: The man is searching for a house and the land lady has named a considerable price, and the area where it is located is an impartial and not racially prejudiced. Also the man could enjoy his privacy as the land lady does not live under the same roof. The African man is ready to accept the offer, but maybe there has been a similar incident in his past, for he stops and admits to her that he is black, saying he prefers not to waste the time travelling there if she’s going to refuse him on that bounds.
There is silence at the other end; silence which the black man thinks is the reluctant result of an inbred sense of politeness. However he is wrong because when she speaks again, she disregards all formalities and asks him to explain how dark he is. The man first thinks he has misheard but then realizes that that is not true as she repeats her question with a varying emphasis. Feeling as if he has just been reduced to the status of a machine, similar to the telephone in front of him, and asked to choose which button he is, the man is so disgusted that he can literally smell the stench coming from her deceptive words and see red everywhere around him. Ironically he is the one who is ashamed by the tense and awkward silence which follows, and asks for clarification thinking sarcastically that the lady was really helpful by giving him options to choose from. He suddenly understands what she is trying to ask, and repeats her question to her stating if she would like him to compare himself with chocolate, dark or light? She dispassionately answers and his thoughts change as he describes himself as a West African Sepia as it says in his passport. The lady remains quite for a while, not wanting to admit to her ignorance, but then she gives in to curiosity and asks what that is. He replies that it is similar to brunette and she immediately clarifies that that’s dark.
Now the man has had enough of her insensitiveness. He disregards all constraints of formality and mocks her outright, saying that he isn’t all black, the soles of his feet and the palms of his hands are completely white, but he is foolish enough to sit on his bottom so it has been rubbed black due to friction. But as he senses that she is about to slam the receiver on him, he struggles one last time to make her reconsider, pleading her to at least see for herself; only to have the phone slammed on him.

Wole Soyinka uses two main literary devices to drive home the message of the poem. The first of the two is imagery. Right at the beginning, the imagery used to describe the mental image the man has of the woman: “lipstick coated, gold rolled cigarette holder piped”, just from listening to her voice shows one that he thinks that she is, socially speaking above him, from a higher social class.
Then when he hears her question regarding how dark he is, he is so humiliated and angry that he sees red everywhere. The imagery of the huge bus squelching the black tar is symbolic of how the dominant white community treats those belonging to the minor black one.
The next most evident use is that of irony. In the beginning of the poem, the African says that he has to “self-confess” when he reveals his skin color to the lady. The color of his skin is something that he has no control over, and even if he did, it is not a sin to be dark skinned, so the fact that the man feels ashamed and sorry for this is ironical and casts light on how ridiculous racism is that one should apologize or be differentiated against solely because of the color of one’s skin. Also, it seems almost comical that anyone should be so submissive when he has actually committed no mistakes.
On the other hand, the lady is continuously described in positive terms, suggesting that she is of a good breeding and upper class. Even when the reader finds out that she is a shallow and racist person who exhibits extreme insensitivity by asking crude questions, the man seems to think that she is ‘considerate; and her clinical response to his question shows only ‘light impersonality.’ The repeated and exaggerated assertions of the woman’s good manners and sophistication drip with irony as her speech contradict this strongly.
Also the basis of the woman rejecting to lease her house to the man is because of the prejudiced notion that African Americans are a savage and wild people. This idea is completely discredited by the ironical fact that throughout the poem the man retains better manners and vocabulary than the woman, using words such as “spectroscopic” and “rancid”, whereas she does not know what West African Sepia is and is inconsiderate in her inquiries. Using irony in this manner, Soyinka proves how absurd it is to judge the intellect or character of a man depending on the color of his skin only.

The poem deals with a foul subject, that of racism and prejudice, in a lighthearted, almost comical manner. A most important device which Soyinka has used to highlight this sense of racism, which was previously widespread in western society, is that of the telephone. Had the person been speaking face to face with the lady, this whole conversation would never have taken place. She would have either refused outright, or would have found a more subtle way of doing so. The whole back and forth about ‘how dark’ the man is wouldn’t have occurred. Thus the telephone is used to make the issue of racism clear and prove how nonsensical it really is.
Written in an independent style and delivered in a passively sarcastic tone, this poem is a potent comment on society. Soyinka might be speaking through personal experience, judging by the raw emotions that this poem subtly convey: those of anger, rage, shame, humility and an acute sense of disgust at the apathy and inhumanity of humans who won’t judge a book by its cover but would turn down a man for the color of his skin. In today’s world, racism might be a dying concern; but that does not mean that discrimination against other minorities has been completely eradicated. Despite the progressing times, people continue to harbor prejudices and illogical suspicions about things they do not understand: may it be others ideals, religions or traditions and customs. Thus this poem remains a universal message for all of us, as Soyinka manages to convey just how absurd all prejudices are by highlighting the woman’s poor choice of rejecting the man just because he does not share the same skin color.
‘Telephone Conversation’ is a favorite, both for its excellent use of rich language and the timeless message it conveys.

 
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Posted by on January 14, 2012 in Analysis of Poems.

 

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Analysis: My Last Duchess (Robert Browning)

Robert Browning’s My Last Duchess is a dramatic monologue uttered by the Duke of Ferrari which highlights the jealous and sadistic nature of his character and the mysteriousness which surrounds his late wife’s demise.

The poem starts with him drawing the attention of the person whom he is talking to, who is, as one later finds out, a messenger from the Count’s family whose daughter’s hand the duke seeks in marriage; to the portrait of his late wife on the wall. The duke praises the work of the painter, Fra Pandolf, who had spent a whole day slaving over the painting to make it look so lifelike. He instructs the messenger to sit down, and goes on to describe how anyone who has ever seen that picturesque expression on his lady’s painted face, has never failed to ask him, as he has always been present for no one dares to draw the curtain from the painting except him, the reason behind the lively expression. He then thinks about his late wife, remembering that it wasn’t just his company which made her blush. He wonders that maybe it was the painter complimenting her that brought forth such a response from her, as she thought that such attentions were all just formalities and politeness. He continues on scorning the easily pleased nature of the duchess: she found something to praise in whatever she saw. Finding the fact disdainful that things so simple and unworthy as the sunset or a small offering of fruit some officer made her could make her as happy as his gift to her, his hand in marriage and a nine hundred year old name, did, he admits to the messenger that he did not approve of such unreservedness. He goes on to say that no one could really fault the duchess for her flighty nature, but even if he had the power of speech required to make his expectations from her clear, and had she been willing to do as he told, even then he could not think of sinking down to her level by telling her what displeases him. He hints at the fact that the duchess seemed to smile at everyone in the same way that she smiled at him, implying that perhaps she was unfaithful and treacherous. Such was the exasperation and disgust of the duke at his wife’s flirtatious habits that he suggests that her death was caused at his orders. He again directs the attention of both the messenger and the reader towards the painting and repeats himself from earlier saying that the portrait is so accurate that it looks like as if she’s standing there, alive.

He then instructs the messenger to stand and come with him to the party which has assembled below, reminding him haughtily that the magnificence of the count is enough guarantee that anything he asks for in dowry will not be refused, but claims at the same time that it is only the hand of his fair daughter that he seeks. While going out he points out a bronze bust showing the sea god, Neptune taming a wild sea horse.

The main feature of this poem is Browning’s artistic use of the dramatic monologue. Even though it is the duke who is talking about the character of the duchess to the messenger, one can glean lots of facts about his own character through the manner in which he speaks, and the way in which he describes his wife. This, coupled with the use of enjambment, the technique of inserting line breaks, and caesurae, emphasize the flow of the duke’s speech. It is not just a monologue in name; even written on paper this poem is so overflowing with different ideas that it seems like the duke’s thoughts were running into each other as he voiced his opinion about his late wife. Apart from this, symbolism is also used in a couple of places. First, the portrait hanging on the wall which is covered by a curtain which ‘none but the duke could draw’ is symbolic of how the controlling nature of the duke is satisfied when, if not in life then after death, only he has any say in who should look upon his late wife. Also, the bust of Neptune that he points out to the messenger on his way out, symbolizes how he tamed his free-spirited wife, much like Neptune tames the wild spirit of the sea horse.

Thus Browning, in a colorful and impressive monologue portrays a character that is as vile and maniacal as the language is flowery. The duke is shown to be a control-freak, an over imaginative psychopath who finds fault in the innocence of his wife’s youth, and condemns her to death. His controlling nature is evident from the start, in the way he dictates the emissary’s actions telling him when to sit and when to rise and how proud he is of the fact that no one is allowed to draw the curtain hiding his wife’s portrait but he. He has, in his imagination, reduced his once alive and lovely wife, to a mere possession, and refers to her painting as ‘a piece’ of wonder. One sees that it is not only his wife who thus dehumanized: when he talks about the painter, he praises his hands; reducing his person effectively to a mere tool that is used for painting. Then as he continues on, one can’t help but sense the intense jealousy which resides in the duke’s heart, as he scorns on how easily pleased his lady was of anything beautiful and pleasant. He cannot stand her blushing for, and smiling at everything and everybody who pleases her. He is full of self-importance, a trait that is tarnished and brought into question when his wife does not share his arrogance and haughty attitude. Such is his arrogance that having a normal conversation with his wife or telling her what he expects from her is considered by him to be below his standards. He chooses not to talk to her about her faults, which are naught but a liveliness of nature, a happy disposition, and a yearning for life, but rather ends that which he cannot control.

In this short poem, Browning weaves a compelling tale of mystery, murder and intrigue which in equal parts disgusts and delights the reader. One is appalled at the cruelty and madness of the duke, yet is amazed at the beauty and majesty of the language used, which is in no way below the level of Shakespeare. I enjoyed the poem immensely as it was a thrilling yarn which had me captivated throughout.

 
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Posted by on December 2, 2011 in Analysis of Poems.

 

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