“Let America Be America Again”: Hughes & Trump’s Two Visions for America

langston hughes

Let America Be America Again

By Langston Hughes

Let America be America again.

Let it be the dream it used to be.

Let it be the pioneer on the plain

Seeking a home where he himself is free.

(America never was America to me.)

Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed—

Let it be that great strong land of love

Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme

That any man be crushed by one above.

(It never was America to me.)

O, let my land be a land where Liberty

Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,

But opportunity is real, and life is free,

Equality is in the air we breathe.

(There’s never been equality for me,

Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free.”)

Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark?

And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?

I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,

I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars.

I am the red man driven from the land,

I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek—

And finding only the same old stupid plan

Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.

I am the young man, full of strength and hope,

Tangled in that ancient endless chain

Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land!

Of grab the gold! Of grab the ways of satisfying need!

Of work the men! Of take the pay!

Of owning everything for one’s own greed!

I am the farmer, bondsman to the soil.

I am the worker sold to the machine.

I am the Negro, servant to you all.

I am the people, humble, hungry, mean—

Hungry yet today despite the dream.

Beaten yet today—O, Pioneers!

I am the man who never got ahead,

The poorest worker bartered through the years.

Yet I’m the one who dreamt our basic dream

In the Old World while still a serf of kings,

Who dreamt a dream so strong, so brave, so true,

That even yet its mighty daring sings

In every brick and stone, in every furrow turned

That’s made America the land it has become.

O, I’m the man who sailed those early seas

In search of what I meant to be my home—

For I’m the one who left dark Ireland’s shore,

And Poland’s plain, and England’s grassy lea,

And torn from Black Africa’s strand I came

To build a “homeland of the free.”

The free?

Who said the free? Not me?

Surely not me? The millions on relief today?

The millions shot down when we strike?

The millions who have nothing for our pay?

For all the dreams we’ve dreamed

And all the songs we’ve sung

And all the hopes we’ve held

And all the flags we’ve hung,

The millions who have nothing for our pay—

Except the dream that’s almost dead today.

O, let America be America again—

The land that never has been yet—

And yet must be—the land where every man is free.

The land that’s mine—the poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s, ME—

Who made America,

Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,

Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,

Must bring back our mighty dream again.

Sure, call me any ugly name you choose—

The steel of freedom does not stain.

From those who live like leeches on the people’s lives,

We must take back our land again,

America!

O, yes,

I say it plain,

America never was America to me,

And yet I swear this oath—

America will be!

Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,

The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,

We, the people, must redeem

The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.

The mountains and the endless plain—

All, all the stretch of these great green states—

And make America again!

Back in November, I was terrified by the prospect of a Trump presidency.  Today, I’m even more stumped at how such a man could conceivably win.  Bigoted, racist, misogynistic, bombastic, narcissistic.  Trump is a fear-mongering demagogue who deals in divisiveness and threatens to destroy the very foundations on which our democracy is built.  If you could somehow get past his unconscionable proposals to ban Muslim immigrants and build a wall between the U.S. and Mexico, if you could somehow ignore his despicable behavior towards women, if you could somehow disregard the countless allegations women have made accusing him of sexual harassment and assault, how could you possibly ignore the fact that he doesn’t have the slightest clue as to how our government works?  Trump is a business man, not a politician.  While many right-wing nut jobs (looking at you, Sarah Palin) claim that’s his appeal, it’s only logical that a man with no experience in government would have a hard time in the White House.  Unlike Clinton who proposed detailed, meticulous plans to reach her objectives, Trump only made vague promises during his campaign…and offered no concrete means of fulfilling them.  Terrorism?  ‘Ban Muslims!’  Immigration?  ‘Build a wall!’  As J.K. Rowling so insightfully noted, Trumpism is synonymous with proposing “crude, unworkable solutions” to complex problems.

So how has this man rallied such passionate, borderline frenzied support?  Trump’s ascendancy can no doubt be attributed to a widespread dissatisfaction with the status quo, a general feeling that the system is rigged against the little guy.  Trump sticks an unrepentant middle finger at social niceties: when he’s not calling his opponent a “nasty woman,” he’s telling Access Hollywood how he “grabs women by the pussies.”  Though such comments should be appalling, many Americans appreciate Trump’s particular brand of brash frankness.  To those disillusioned blue-collar workers in Trump Land, the Republican candidate’s refusal to succumb to modern standards of political correctness is part of his charm.  His reviling comments are even a badge of his honesty.  “Look what he openly says about minorities and women!” Trump nuts must think, “he won’t pussyfoot around the issues!”

The kinds of people Trump attracts are just one of the many ironies of last year’s election season.  Trump is a titan of the 1%, a New York City billionaire, not a self-made man but the product of generational nepotism, yet his campaign won the allegiance of millions of Trump soldiers from the lower middle classes.  Why?  Trump-of all people-won’t represent their interests; if anything, he’ll proceed to represent his own.  In office, you can bet he’ll slash taxes for the rich and continue an onslaught of dangerous economic reforms that will line the pockets of the elite and make the poor poorer.  Clinton has been a champion for the lower classes her whole career yet the white lower classes refused to vote for her.  She’s “untrustworthy,” “dishonest,” “power-hungry,” they said.  How, I wondered last November, how could people be so stupid?  How could people so blindly, willingly, enthusiastically vote against their own interests?!?!  

Because Trump stands as the master of the most effective political tactic of all: divide and conquer.  According to Karl Marx, father of the communist movement, the ruling class protects its power by pitting the lower ranks against each other.  Trump has been taking a play from the Hitler playbook all along.  Like the infamous furor, Trump capitalizes on the fear and discontent of average men to garner support for his cause.  And much like Hitler, Trump has found a convenient scapegoat to blame for all of America’s problems.  Whether it’s illegal immigrants or possible terrorist Muslims, Trump exploits the blue collar, white American fear of the foreign other…and the particularly white fear of losing their long-standing power.

Trump campaigned on the promise to “make America great again,” a promise many have interpreted to mean once again make America white, racist and exclusionary.  Like many of his conservative predecessors, Trump took advantage of a kind of widespread nostalgia, a yearning to resurrect our former national glory.  And like many, he exploited the inherent ambiguousness of the term “America.”  What does it really mean to be American?  What is America?  For the conservative, America is capitalist industry, rugged individualism, free markets; for the liberal, America is equality of opportunity, multiculturalism, diversity.  What, exactly, America is remains open to debate: it’s a relative term whose meaning shifts depending on the dictionary.

Unlike Trump who yearns for an America long past, poet Langston Hughes believes America is a dream that has yet to be fulfilled.  Though there’s a nostalgic quality to his longing (in the first line, he wistfully pleads, “Let America be America again” in a way that eerily echoes Trump’s campaign slogan), there’s equally a sense that America is an ideal we have yet to achieve.  In what will become a pattern in the first third of the poem, Hughes punctuates the end of the first stanza with a parenthetical aside:

“America,” he confesses, “was never America to me” (Hughes 5).  

Here “never” poses a logical contradiction: how can America be itself “again” if it “never” existed in the first place?  

Hughes may employ the romanticized images of our national history-the dauntless “pioneer,” for example, settling the rugged, untrammeled frontier-but he does so to reveal them as mythos.  Just as our history books conveniently rewrite the genocide of millions of Native Americans as the glorious fulfillment of manifest destiny, we cherish the American dream as truth when, for many, it’s nothing more than a fairy tale.  Hughes’s parenthetical speaker reminds us of this unsettling fact.  Though we pay lip service to democratic notions of tolerance and equality of opportunity, the fact that the speaker is syntactically ostracized by parentheses proves that “liberty and justice for all” ironically only applies to a privileged class.  

One of Hughes’s many narrative talents is his ability to shift perspectives.  Later in the poem, he adopts the voice of mainstream America, an America who’s shocked-even a little offended-that someone could make such a claim:

Say who are you that mumbles in the dark?

And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?” (Hughes 17-18).  

Here, the presence of italics indicates the intrusion of another voice, one we haven’t heard before.  Because these lines are phrased as questions, we can assume they’re directed at someone.  But who?  Hughes’s choice of words might provide some insight.  The people to whom the speaker refers are not expressing themselves loudly or confidently but “mumble” which suggests they’re silenced and marginalized.  “Darkness” furthers this idea as those he addresses are literally rendered invisible by ignorance and denial.  If we consider the context of the poem, it makes sense that the voice is responding to our earlier parenthetical speaker:

“There’s never been equality for me

No freedom in this ‘homeland of the free'” (Hughes 15-16).

For most Americans, the realization of their country’s hypocrisy is too devastating to bear.  Who, they wonder, would draw such a “veil across the stars?” (Hughes 18).  If stars are proud symbols of American patriotism, the fact that such accusations draw a “veil” across them implies America’s legacy of exclusion diminishes the speaker’s national pride.  The word itself carries solemn connotations, evoking doleful images of attending a funeral.  However, the only thing that’s died is our speaker’s aggrandized portrait of America.  Turns out the “dream” he’s treasured so dearly is just that, a dream-it only exists in the abstract.

So “who,” to return to our earlier question, is our speaker addressing? who is “mumbling in the dark”?  The answer comes in the following lines:

“I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart

I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars

I am the red man driven from the land

I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek” (Hughes 19-22).  

For Hughes, it is the presence of the working-class man, the Indian and African American, that indisputably proves the American dream an enticing but ultimately untrue fiction.  His use of Whitman-esque anaphora proves the defining feature of the stanza.  Each beginning with the emphatic repetition of “I am” before listing yet another class barred access to the American dream, these lines reflect Hughes’s vision for his homeland.  In much the same way that each line originates in the same place but ends in difference, in Hughes’s America, each person is bound by a common identity but permitted the freedom of their own distinct individuality.  The poor white man, the Negro, the red man driven from his rightful home: though at the time this poem was published such minority groups were still struggling for self-determination, Hughes believed they had an equal right to sit at the American table.  Today in the era of Trump, this same struggle continues.  While Hughes’s America is expansive enough to accommodate a multitude of voices, Trump’s America seems terrifyingly restrictive.  

But when the future of our nation seems bleak, as it does today, we must not despair.  Rather we should remember Hughes’s rousing words: though he says it “plain” that “America never was America to me,” at the end of the poem, he swears a triumphant oath that “America will be!”

God, Hubris & Fate: Thomas Hardy’s “The Convergence of the Twain”

The Convergence of the Twain

By Thomas Hardy

(Lines on the loss of the “Titanic”)

I

In a solitude of the sea

Deep from human vanity,

And the Pride of Life that planned her, stilly couches she.

II

Steel chambers, late the pyres

Of her salamandrine fires,

Cold currents thrid, and turn to rhythmic tidal lyres.

III

Over the mirrors meant

To glass the opulent

The sea-worm crawls — grotesque, slimed, dumb, indifferent.

IV

Jewels in joy designed

To ravish the sensuous mind

Lie lightless, all their sparkles bleared and black and blind.

V

Dim moon-eyed fishes near

Gaze at the gilded gear

And query: “What does this vaingloriousness down here?”

VI

Well: while was fashioning

This creature of cleaving wing,

The Immanent Will that stirs and urges everything

VII

Prepared a sinister mate

For her — so gaily great —

A Shape of Ice, for the time far and dissociate.

VIII

And as the smart ship grew

In stature, grace, and hue,

In shadowy silent distance grew the Iceberg too.

IX

Alien they seemed to be;

No mortal eye could see

The intimate welding of their later history,

X

Or sign that they were bent

By paths coincident

On being anon twin halves of one august event,

XI

Till the Spinner of the Years

Said “Now!” And each one hears,

And consummation comes, and jars two hemispheres.

titanic maiden voyage

In his cool, philosophical poem “Convergence of the Twain,” Thomas Hardy meditates on the futility of acquiring material wealth. The poem opens in “a solitude of the sea” where the Titanic-Britain’s crowning glory and so-called “unsinkable” ship-came to rest over 100 years ago.

The remote, dark depths of the Atlantic serve as the setting for the rest of poem where the once magnificent testament to human will now sits at the bottom of the sea. A deeply inhuman environment, the ocean in Hardy’s poem represents mystery and darkness, a place where all things will be forgotten and eventually meet their end. This idea is reinforced in the second line when Hardy describes the sea as a place “deep from human vanity” (Hardy 2). The fact that the ocean is “deep”-or removed- from human vanity suggests pride and appearance have little meaning after death. In the next line, Hardy claims the “Pride of Life” planned the magnificent ship (Hardy 3). The aggressive capitalization of the word “Pride” proves the human belief in our own infallibility; however, our “plans” reveal themselves ludicrous when the Titanic, the “unsinkable” ship, flounders and sinks 3 days after it sets off from London’s harbor. By personifying man’s plans to construct an indestructible ship, Hardy mocks the ridiculousness of such an endeavor as man’s ambitions mean little in the face of destiny.

Since her tragic demise in 1912, the Titanic has become a devastating symbol of man‘s hubris, or over-reaching. In the third and fourth stanzas, we witness the futility of man’s worldly power: “Over the mirrors meant/To glass the opulent/The sea-worm crawls-grotesque, slimed, dumb, indifferent” (Hardy 7-9). Here, mirrors-which were “meant” to house “opulent” jewels-now serve as playgrounds for sea-worms. Though they were originally intended to protect something beautiful, mirrors themselves are extremely delicate, which points to human life’s fragility. Both stanzas follow the same structure: in the first and second lines, Hardy outlines an object’s original purpose; in the third, he reveals the uselessness of that purpose now that the Titanic is rotting six feet under. That jewels-emblems of glamor and social status-now “lie lightless” suggests that lavish wealth is meaningless in the face of mortality (Hardy 12).

Syntactically, the poem’s immediate undermining of each object’s original purpose proves two things: 1) man is very intent on being in control and 2) the desire to be in control is not only impossible-it’s pointless. Though these stunning jewels were “designed” to “ravish the sensuous mind,” life interferes with those plans when the Titanic meets her “twin halve” and crashes into an iceberg (Hardy 10-11).

titanic unsinkable ship

“If you want to make God laugh,” the old saying goes, “make a plan.” Thomas Hardy’s “Convergence of the Twain” is a cruel reminder of our inability to ever be fully in control. In fact, the only thing that seems to possess absolute governance in the poem is God, whom Hardy describes as the “Spinner of Years” (Hardy 31). Man might imagine himself as the subject of his syntactical destiny; however, it is God who appears over and over again as the actual one in power. In the sixth stanza, we see this image of God reinforced grammatically:

“Well: while was fashioning/This creature of cleaving wing,/The Immanent Will that stirs and urges everything/Prepared a sinister mate/ For her — so gaily great” (Hardy 16-20).

Interestingly, the first line of the stanza is missing a proper subject. The sentence sounds so odd, in fact, one might think it’s a typo. However, Hardy intentionally drops the subject (man) to imply man is not a subject at all, but rather an object at the mercy of God’s will. Humankind may outwardly appear like a God (for instance, in these lines he fashions “creatures” much like God in the biblical origin story), but he nevertheless remains an object of the “Immanent Will.” God’s status as the only named subject in these lines hints at the overall moral of Hardy’s poem: compared to God, who is mighty and omnipotent, man’s ability to influence fate, it seems, is painfully limited.

Death & Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”

robert frost

Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening

By Robert Frost

Whose woods these are I think I know.   

His house is in the village though;   

He will not see me stopping here   

To watch his woods fill up with snow.   

My little horse must think it queer   

To stop without a farmhouse near   

Between the woods and frozen lake   

The darkest evening of the year.   

He gives his harness bells a shake   

To ask if there is some mistake.   

The only other sound’s the sweep   

Of easy wind and downy flake.   

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,   

But I have promises to keep,   

And miles to go before I sleep,   

And miles to go before I sleep.

Have been beginning my mornings by reading a poem from The 100 Best Poems of All Time, a lovely collection of classics my grandmother gave me years ago. Today, read Robert Frost’s “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening.” Never been a big lover of Frost: his poems are too monosyllabic, too simple; I much prefer the lyricism of a Plath or Fitzgerald. But just so I don’t spent hours debating which poem to read, I turn to a random page and let the fates decide; today, I landed on page 129, Robert Frost’s classic. I had read this poem once before with a student but my memory was muddled. Reading it again today, I felt the familiar frustration of encountering Frost: the poem seems like the retelling of a man’s brief stop in the woods, nothing more. I feel the same way reading Hemingway. Though I can appreciate the groundbreaking cultural significance of Hemingway’s lean, athletic style, I myself am a traditionalist: a prefer writing to be poetic, lavish, adorned.

But in a way, simplicity is genius: though a piece by Hemingway or Frost may seem forthright and straight-forward, their simplicity usually conceals a far more complex machinery operating underneath. Take Frost’s “Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening” as an example. Reading it a couple of minutes ago, the poem seemed like an uncomplicated story about a man pausing to admire the beauty of a dark wood; however, upon closer examination, deeper themes revealed themselves.

If we investigate the rather plain title, we notice that the poem’s name immediately situates us in time and place: in the woods on a snowy evening. Taken alone, this doesn’t seem noteworthy; however, if we look closer, we’ll notice Frost doesn’t set his poem on any evening but a “snowy” one. Snow, and more generally the bleakness of a cold winter, universally represents death just as spring points to rejuvenation and renewal.

Though Frost’s poem presents itself as an accessible series of events-a man who craves to escape from the responsibilities of his ordinary life finds peace in a nearby wood-some scholars have theorized this poem carries a more sinister meaning and that the speaker is actually contemplating suicide and meditating on the nature of death. Such a reading finds support in several instances of the text: in the last stanza, for example, the speaker seems hypnotized by the enchanting forest, calling the woods “lovely, dark and deep” (Frost 13). The woods-like death- are made “lovely” by the very fact that they’re “dark” and “deep”, or removed from the commotion of civilization. Throughout the poem, our speaker longs for the quiet peace only death can offer, using soft, lulling words like “easy” and “downy” to describe the sounds of the restful wood beyond the lake.

However in the next line, the contrasting conjunction “but” indicates his affair with the snowy night is only temporary. No matter how enticing it may be to give up and surrender to the tranquility of death, the speaker realizes he has “promises to keep” and “miles to go” before he can metaphorically slumber. The repetition of “and miles” in the final two lines hints at the distance he still has to travel before he can meet death. Such an ending suggests our speaker has had an epiphany of sorts: though life can be disappointing, our speaker realizes the escapism embodied by suicide is ultimately irresponsible.

Petronius’s “Doing”

petronius statue

“Doing”

By Gaius Petronius

Doing, a filthy pleasure is, and short;

And done, we straight repent us of the sport:

Let us not then rush blindly on unto it,

Like lustful beasts, that only know to do it:

For lust will languish, and that heat decay.

But thus, thus, keeping endless holiday,

Let us together closely lie and kiss,

There is no labour, nor no shame in this;

This hath pleased, doth please, and long will please; never

Can this decay, but is beginning ever.

In “Doing,” 1st century A.D. poet Petronius urges us to restrain our physical desire.  The first lines portray “short pleasure” as the dirtiest and most depraved:

“Doing, a filthy pleasure is, and short;/And done, we straight repent us of the sport;/ Let us not then rush blindly on unto it,/ Like lustful beasts, that only know to do it:/ For lust will languish, and that heat decay” (1-5).

To put it in more modern terms, Petronius isn’t the guy who’d chug a beer, slur a brash, unromantic “want to have sex?” in your ear before fucking you in the fastest, most unimaginable way.  No, he’d be a sensualist-the quieter, more amorous guy that understands seduction begins with mystery, with the withholding of gratification.

Ironically, in “Doing” the “doing” itself offers no lasting pleasure. If “doing” is a present participial verb representing eternal action, the actual consummation of desire (sex) is both “filthy” and “short.” Meaning improper and obscene, “filthy” portrays sex as sinful. But before you go assuming that Petronius was a prude who advocated for celibacy and chastity belts, we should make one thing clear: it is not visceral desire that Petronius so stalwartly rallies against-it’s the ways in which we approach sex. When we simply “do” sex like we would do a homework assignment, we miss the rapture and excitement real intimacy can afford.

“And done,” he laments, “we straight repent us of the sport.” Here, the religious word “repent” indicates such lovemaking is a serious sin against God worthy of profound regret. “Sport” further reinforces this image. Rather than depict sex as a blissful communion of both body and spirit, “sport” trivializes the act as if it were just another means of amusement. Such an attitude toward sex represents a devolution to our lower animal nature: like “lustful  beasts” who possess no reason or rationality and simply rely on the impulse of their instincts, the man who sets out to merely fulfill his carnal longings will miss out on a whole other dimension of intimacy-he’ll have sex but no lovemaking.

For Petronius, the problem with lust is it doesn’t last: desire will “languish”; heat “decay”. Both words depict the consummation of sexual longing as intense but ultimately fleeting. To obtain the object of your desire, it seems, is disillusioning. It’s like The Great Gatsby. Though he’s spent years building a fortune in hopes of finally winning back Daisy, the long lost love of his life, when he finally attains her, he feels disenchanted: she was better off as the green light, a hazy, faraway ambition made appealing by its being inaccessible.

The only way for ardor to be sustained over the long-term, then, is for fulfillment to be postponed…at least for a little while:

“But, thus, thus, keeping endless holiday,/ Let us together closely lie and kiss,/ There is no labor nor no shame in this” (Petronius 6-8).

If a holiday is a magical time when one can temporarily vacate their life and take some time off, Petronius is asking his lover to indulge in a brief respite from the world. But their respite is not gratifying their fiery desires-it’s delaying them. Often once you attain the object of your desire, your appetite for them deteriorates; it is only the pursuit of longing that makes sex exciting-not its actual fulfillment. Petronius, the first master of seduction, was well aware of this. By deferring the consummation of their passions, he knows their relationship will remain a blissful honeymoon instead of disintegrate into the all-too-common convention of marriage as hopeless tedium.

Sylvia Plath’s “Magnolia Shoals”

Sylvia Plath on her first day at Mademoiselle.

Magnolia Shoals

Up here among the gull cries

we stroll through a maze of pale

red-mottled relics, shells, claws

as if it were summer still.

That season has turned its back.

Through the green sea gardens stall,

bow, and recover their look

of the imperishable

gardens in an antique book

or tapestries on a wall,

leaves behind us warp and lapse.

The late month withers, as well.

Below us a white gull keeps

the weed-slicked shelf for his own,

hustles other gulls off. Crabs

rove over his field of stone;

mussels cluster blue as grapes :

his beak brings the harvest in.

The watercolorist grips

his brush in the stringent air.

The horizon’s bare of ships,

the beach and the rocks are bare.

He paints a blizzard of gulls,

wings drumming in the winter.

Just read Sylvia Plath’s lovely poem “Magnolia Shoals,” a charming little poem about the deception of summer.

The poem begins with an anonymous “we” leisurely strolling along the coastline:

Up here among the gull cries/ we stroll through a maze of pale/ red-mottled relics, shells, claws” (Plath 1-3).

Meaning an object surviving from an earlier time, the word “relic” suggests the “shells” and “claws” are so remote to the speaker that they belong to another era entirely. The fact that Plath applies this word to rather ordinary objects found on a beach indicates the world has undergone a major historical shift without much outwardly changing at all. “Magnolia Shoals” traces this subtle shift from summer to winter as the speaker observes her surroundings, feeling betrayed as she realizes summer has deserted her and left her with a bitter winter. Throughout the poem, the landscape will give the appearance of summer-the season of leisure and unhurried reflection- only to conceal its true character as winter:

Through the sea green gardens stall/ bow, and recover their look/ of the imperishable/ gardens in an antique book,” the speaker complains, “they [the gardens] leave behind us warp and lapse” (Plath 6-12).

Here, the hypnotic quality of the repeated “g” sound (“green sea gardens”) hints at a greater deception underlying the poem: though the verdant gardens appear radiant and full of life, the fact that they have to “recover” their “look” implies their appearance is not reality-it’s superficial. Like models carefully posed and air-brushed in a fashion spread, the gardens project a distorted image of reality: while they look “imperishable” as if they’ll endure forever, their impermanence is merely constructed like an “antique book.” The words “warp” and “lapse” further this theme of delusion, revealing the speaker and her partner have been duped. The external world may appear static and unchanging, but such security is false: just as summer must fade to winter, all things in life must decay and end. Pretty red magnolias wither and droop until their petals shrivel and rejoin the soil; squirrels frolic around for a time but eventually pass on. The very setting of the poem-a beach somewhere-hints at the inevitability of such change; waves hurl themselves against the shore; coastlines erode, recede.

Magnolia Shoals” follows a young woman who grapples with this transience and explores the bitter betrayal she feels when she realizes the world has deceived her. In the beginning of the poem, the speaker personifies summer as a duplicitous traitor who “turned its back” on her, which reveals the extent of her feelings of abandonment (Plath 5). Though seasons are impersonal forces of nature with no motives or agendas, the speaker attributes the coming of winter to the treachery of summer, as if June, July and August could somehow be responsible. Such assignment of blame to a season points to a larger human dilemma: though we want to think of nature as a benevolent force sympathetic to its impact on human action, the world of this poem does not possess the capacity for thought (or deceit) as the speaker imagines-rather, the universe appears indifferent and unconcerned with the affairs of man.

 

Langston Hughes’s “In Explanation of Our Times”

langston hughes

In Explanation of Our Times

By Langston Hughes

The folks with no titles in front of their names

all over the world

are raring up and talking back

to the folks called Mister.

You say you thought everybody was called Mister?

No, son, not everybody.

In Dixie, often they won’t call Negroes Mister.

In China before what happened

They had no intention of calling coolies Mister.

Dixie to Singapore, Cape Town to Hong Kong

the Misters won’t call lots of other folks Mister.

They call them, Hey George!

Here, Sallie!

Listen, Coolie!

Hurry up, Boy!

And things like that.

George Sallie Coolie Boy gets tired sometimes.

So all over the world today

folks with not even Mister in front of their names

are raring up and talking back

to those called Mister.

From Harlem past Hong Kong talking back.

Shut up, says Gerald L.K. Smith.

Shut up, says the Governor of South Carolina.

Shut up, says the Governor of Singapore.

Shut up, says Strydom.

Hell no shut up! say the people

with no titles in front of their names.

Hell no! It’s time to talk back now!

History says it’s time,

And the radio, too, foggy with propaganda

that says a mouthful

and don’t mean half it says–

but is true anyhow:

LIBERTY!

FREEDOM!

DEMOCRACY!

True anyhow no matter how many

Liars use those words.

The people with no titles in front of their names

hear these words and shout them back

at the Misters, Lords, Generals, Viceroys,

Governors of South Carolina, Gerald L. K. Strydoms.

Shut up, people!

Shut up! Shut up!

Shut up, George!

Shut up, Sallie!

Shut up, Coolie!

Shut up, Indian!

Shut up, Boy!

George Sallie Coolie Indian Boy

black brown yellow bent down working

earning riches for the whole world

with no title in front of name

just man woman tired says:

No shut up!

Hell no shut up!

So naturally, there’s trouble

in these our times

because of people with no titles

in front of their names.

Socrates once said “the misuse of language induces evil in the soul.”  Langston Hughes would agree that words have the power to denigrate and belittle, stigmatize and insult.  In his poem “In Explanation of Our Times,” Hughes reflects on language as an instrument of political power.  The poem opens with coming social revolution:

The folks with no titles in front of their names/all over the world/are raring up and talking back/to the folks called Mister” (Hughes 4).  

Right away, we see the world divided into 2 classes: the oppressor and oppressed, the folks with “no titles” and the folks called “Mister.”  

Though language is a discourse each of us participates in everyday, as a poet Hughes respects its power to shape and define our reality.  From the very beginning of the poem, society weaponizes language to define poor people of color as inferior.  The fact that the lower classes possess no “title” in front of their names immediately identifies them as less than; if a formal address like “Mr.” or “Mrs.” denotes esteem and status, the lack of such a title suggests the majority of people regard African Americans as second-class citizens.  Furthermore, the absence of an honorific or professional title implies people of color aren’t treated with the slightest civility or respect.  Generally, you address someone as “Mr.” or “Mrs.” when they’re older or more experienced than you; the fact that African Americans aren’t addressed with such formality proves they are not only oppressed- they are disdained.  The clear split between the downtrodden and oppressed African American on the one hand and the tyrannical white oppressor “Mister” on the other hints at the severity of social division and foreshadows coming civic unrest.  Though disenfranchised and consigned to the most squalid urban ghettos, here African Americans aren’t passively tolerating their marginalization-they’re fighting against it.  But rather than fight physically through riots or protest, people of color are “talking back.”  So though language can be mobilized to subjugate and tyrannize communities, it can also be marshaled to remedy injustice and topple those in power.

 Interestingly, the simple, singular noun “Mister” refers more broadly to racism in general.  By personifying racism as a capitalized proper “Mister,” Hughes reveals the might of those in power.  Racism is not a single law or the isolated opinion of a few bigots-racism is an institutional practice sanctioned and supported by the government to disempower.  Thus, the personification of “Mister” proves the battle against racism will not be easily won.

In the next stanza, we suddenly shift to a direct 2nd person address when the speaker addresses the audience as “you”:

You say you thought everybody was called Mister?” (Hughes 5).  

By employing the 2nd person “you,” Hughes creates a sense of immediacy while he involves us directly in the action of the poem.  Who “you” is, however, depends on who’s reading his verse.  The anonymity of the 2nd person implies the majority of Americans believe “everybody is called Mister,” which suggests most of us haven’t experienced the racism relayed by the speaker.

Though, as an audience, we may be unaware of the hardships African Americans face, Hughes never takes a scolding, condescending tone toward our ignorance; instead, he positions us as mentees/students and the speaker as our guide/teacher:

No, son,” he answers in response to our question, “not everybody” (Hughes 6).  

Here, the affectionate, endearing “son” portrays the speaker-not as a ruthless crusader bent on punishing us for our ignorance-but as a sympathetic friend who simply wants to inform.  In the next few lines, Hughes explains that underprivileged people of color around the world are despised:

In Dixie, often they won’t call Negroes Mister./ In China before what happened/ They had no intention of calling collies Mister./ Dixie to Singapore, Cape Town to Hong Kong/ the Misters won’t call lots of other folks Mister” (Hughes 7-11).  

Much like the ambiguous “you” that shifts depending on who’s reading the poem, “they” is left with no clear antecedent- who “they” is remains open to argument.  By leaving the 1st person plural “they” without a referent, Hughes reinforces the idea that the perpetrators of racism are difficult to spot; the oppressor isn’t just 1 person or even 1 group of people- the oppressor is an entire establishment that exists around the world and is thus difficult to reform.  

In the following lines we see how, once again, those in power manipulate language to disempower African Americans and maintain the status quo:

They call them, Hey George!/ Here, Sallie!/ Listen, Coolie!/ Hurry up, Boy!” (Hughes 12-16).  

If names represent the heart of our identities, the fact that African Americans are only addressed by their first names and not by professional titles reveals their subordinate status in American culture.  Not only are African Americans refused the formality of Mr. and Mrs., but they are denied even the most basic courtesy and respect.  Bossy, aggressive words like “hey!”, “here!”, and “listen!” create a string of commands, positioning African Americans as obedient dogs and white Americans as their masters.  

Hughes admits that “George Sallie Coolie Boy gets tired” from such mistreatment, which proves language can deeply wound and insult (Hughes 18).  Grammatically, “George Sallie Collie Boy” act as a singular subject separated by neither ands nor commas.  This lack of proper punctuation coupled with the presence of “gets”-a singular verb-has the effect of fusing George, Sallie, Collie and Boy together as if they were one person.  Why does Hughes do this?  An English teacher may look at this line and shriek in horror at the subject-verb disagreement but a good reader will realize such grammatical blunders were very much intentional.  By omitting the proper ands and commas and using a singular verb, Hughes depicts African Americans not as individuals but as a class of people, suggesting language has the capacity to dehumanize through stereotype.  

The racist classification of African Americans as “non-Misters” is what Socrates would call a “misuse of language” that arouses evil in the soul.  To use language to deprive other people of rights can only lead, Hughes shows, to chaos.  Angry and outraged as a result of their mistreatment, African Americans are left with no choice but to revolt.  And despite the unrelenting efforts to silence them (“shut up!” is repeated a staggering eleven times over the course of the poem), they refuse to be ignored (“No shut up!” the downtrodden cry, “Hell no shut up!”).  The last stanza confirms that a clash between classes is inevitable:

“So, naturally, there’s trouble/ in these our times/ because of people with no titles” (Hughes 59-62).  

Though refusing to call a black man “mister” may seem petty or insignificant, such subtle acts of racism have devastating effects over the long-term.  As the coordinating conjunction “so” demonstrates, the tension of Hughes’s time (and ours) is a direct result of the unfair oppression of a class of people.  Just as the Chinese had “no intention” of ever calling Coolies mister before the Coolies rose up against Chinese power, America-Hughes argues-won’t grant African Americans equal rights until tensions explode in revolution and upheaval.  

Wordsworth’s “The World is Too Much With Us”

Wordsworth & Nature

The World Is Too Much With Us

By William Wordsworth 

The world is too much with us; late and soon, 

Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;— 

Little we see in Nature that is ours; 

We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon! 

This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon; 

The winds that will be howling at all hours, 

And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers; 

For this, for everything, we are out of tune; 

It moves us not. Great God! I’d rather be 

A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn; 

So might I, standing on this pleasant lea, 

Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn; 

Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea; 

Or hear old Triton blow his wreathèd horn.

Like many Romantic poets, Wordsworth felt the critical problem of modernity was the intrusion of industrialization onto nature. Historically, the 19th century was a time that saw rapid technological change like no other: factories rose, machines displaced human workers, and millions abandoned the lush country side for bustling city centers.  

In his elegiac sonnet “The World is Too Much With Us,” William Wordsworth laments this loss of an intimate connection with nature.  The first line and title of the poem- “the world is too much with us”- mourns this urbanization, claiming it is because we can’t escape the hectic hustle and bustle of everyday life that we can’t appreciate nature (Wordsworth 1). Wordsworth’s use of the 1st person plural “we” in this line performs two functions: 1) grammatically, it indicates that alienation from the glories of nature is a widespread- rather than isolated- problem and 2) by it’s inclusion of Wordsworth, the 1st person plural suggests that he, too, suffers from this disillusioning feeling of disconnect.

Our unceasing obsession with “getting” and “spending” points to the rampant consumerism that pervades our capitalist culture and can help explain this alienation. Rather than possess exulted, spiritual ambitions, most of us-Wordsworth would argue-are content just buying the new I-phone 5. This replacement of spiritual values with material ones deeply disturbed the Romantics, as they believed acquiring more things was an ultimately futile exercise. By phrasing these verbs in the present progressive (“getting” as opposed to its present form “get” or past form “got”), Wordsworth suggests the desire for more things is insatiable and can never be fulfilled. The desire to obtain more is perpetually bound to the progressive “-ing”: always present and never satisfied. Even the words themselves hint at the ceaselessness of the consumerist cycle: once we procure or “get” the object of our desire, we immediately want something new. We then “spend” our money only to find that the attainment of our wish (yet again!) leaves us disappointed. And what do we do? We go out and buy something else! Wordsworth abhorred such materialism, believing the accumulation of objects could never lead to a rich, satisfying life.

Most of us feel a vague sense of ennui, Wordsworth claims, because we’re preoccupied with the superficial and estranged from the beauty and wisdom of nature: “Little we see in Nature that is ours” (Wordsworth 3). Here, the capitalization of “Nature” elevates the natural world to status of proper noun, which suggests Nature is god-like in its power. The tragedy, however, is that-while attached to physical things like money and objects-we feel little ownership of the natural world. Though industrialization represents our demolition of nature and urbanization saw us claim ownership of nature like never before, we see little in nature that is “ours”, meaning we no longer feel connected to Mother Earth: we may “see” a sunset, but we don’t revel in its colors or the way its light illuminates the sky.

In the next line, Wordsworth deplores that “we have given our hearts away,” which reveals our loss of nature as a loss of self (Wordsworth 4). The heart is such an archetypal symbol for emotion that- if penned by another hand- its use might feel cliché; however, here Wordsworth applies the image with evocative effect. By discarding our respect for the awe-inspiring beauty and mystery of nature for the empty sensual pleasures of consumerism, we’ve relinquished our ability to feel and be moved.  The modern man-obsessed as he is with frivolous pleasures-can no longer experience melancholy or despair, ecstasy or euphoria- he is dead to the world.  Or, more accurately, the world is dead to him.  The “sea” and “winds” may be personified as energetic nouns who are intensely active, but to the speaker, they are “up-gathered now like sleeping flowers”- a sad image reflecting his detachment (Wordsworth 5-7).  Though nature appears as stunning as a bouquet of spring flowers, its beauty is “sleeping” and thus lost on the speaker.  For Wordsworth, this is the greatest tragedy: although ordinary life possesses the potential for revelation and glamor, most of us are too heedless to notice.

 

Sylvia Plath’s “Insomniac”

blonde sylvia 

Shakespeare called sleep the “chief nourisher in life’s feast.”  For whatever reason, artists throughout the ages have not been invited to the dinner party.  In his fascinating article “On the Edge of an Abyss,” journalist Greg Johnson asserts that insomnia has tormented artists more than promiscuity or severe alcoholism:

Even more than paranoia, envy, or rampant egotism, a vulnerability to insomnia might well be the trait most commonly shared by serious writers throughout literary history, regardless of their personal temperament, aesthetic program, or country of origin. In fact, this painful and usually chronic malady has plagued writers so frequently, and with such intensity of anguish, that the insomniac state and its attendant longings might justifiably be considered metaphorical of the writer’s rarefied inner world. If insomnia is the very image of his unblinking consciousness, his stubborn refusal to conclude, however briefly, his voracious scrutiny of the world and of his own mental processes, then it is not surprising that sleep— especially “dark, dreamless sleep, in deep oblivion!”— becomes the corresponding image of his most profound and unattainable desires.”  

Like Johnson, many have supposed that there is something about the artist’s particular psychological makeup that predisposes him to insomnia.  William Wordsworth.  The Bronte sisters.  Kafka.  All complained of this nightmarish inability to rest.  Throughout her life, confessional poet Sylvia Plath also suffered bouts of excruciating sleeplessness, requiring a sedative most nights to get to bed.  Plath’s poem “Insomniac” pays tribute to the bedtime affliction that so often tormented her and, I would contend, offers us rare insight into the connection between the artist’s mind and the inability to rest:

The night is only a sort of carbon paper,

Blueblack, with the much-poked periods of stars

Letting in the light, peephole after peephole —

A bonewhite light, like death, behind all things.

Under the eyes of the stars and the moon’s rictus

He suffers his desert pillow, sleeplessness

Stretching its fine, irritating sand in all directions.

Over and over the old, granular movie

Exposes embarrassments–the mizzling days

Of childhood and adolescence, sticky with dreams,

Parental faces on tall stalks, alternately stern and tearful,

A garden of buggy rose that made him cry.

His forehead is bumpy as a sack of rocks.

Memories jostle each other for face-room like obsolete film stars.

He is immune to pills: red, purple, blue —

How they lit the tedium of the protracted evening!

Those sugary planets whose influence won for him

A life baptized in no-life for a while,

And the sweet, drugged waking of a forgetful baby.

Now the pills are worn-out and silly, like classical gods.

Their poppy-sleepy colors do him no good.

His head is a little interior of grey mirrors.

Each gesture flees immediately down an alley

Of diminishing perspectives, and its significance

Drains like water out the hole at the far end.

He lives without privacy in a lidless room,

The bald slots of his eyes stiffened wide-open

On the incessant heat-lightning flicker of situations.

Nightlong, in the granite yard, invisible cats

Have been howling like women, or damaged instruments.

Already he can feel daylight, his white disease,

Creeping up with her hatful of trivial repetitions.

The city is a map of cheerful twitters now,

And everywhere people, eyes mica-silver and blank,

Are riding to work in rows, as if recently brainwashed.

The speaker, a stand-in for Plath herself, first describes the sky as a “sort of carbon paper/Blueblack, with the much-poked periods of stars/Letting in the light” (Plath 1-3). This image of the night sky as carbon paper-a type of paper used for making copies-suggests the world he observes while bogged down in thought is a mere duplicate, an inferior copy of the real one. Interestingly, the light peeping out from behind the sky is depicted as “bonewhite”- a telling image that implies the speaker’s restlessness is so unbearable that he longs for the ultimate relief, the slumber of death. Despite the extent of his suffering, our speaker finds no solace in the surrounding world: while the “eyes” of the stars watch him blankly, the moon appears sadistic as it wears a “rictus,” an ugly, twisted expression usually denoting disgust or wry amusement (Plath 5).  This idea is extended a few lines later when Plath refers to his insomnia as a “desert pillow” and his sleeplessness as a “stretching of fine, irritating sand” (Plath 6-7). Here, the bare, desolate imagery of the desert- a region universally understood as a barren symbol without vegetation or water-hints at the hopelessness of his condition; up all night, the speaker feels alone and desperate, as if he were deserted. Certainly, Plath intended for this secondary meaning of “desert” to resonate as the speaker feels that his midnight restlessness is both unfair and inescapable.

But why is the speaker plagued by this wakefulness? what is the source of his insomnia?  The second stanza attempts to explain the origins of his condition:

Over and over the old, granular movie

Exposes embarrassments-the mizzling days

Of childhood and adolescence, sticky with dreams,

Parental faces of tall stalks, alternatively stern and tearful,

A garden of buggy roses that made him cry.

His forehead is bumpy as a sack of rocks.

Memories jostle each other for face-room like obsolete film stars” (Plath 8-14).

Though many imagine night time as a peaceful reprieve from the hustle and bustle of everyday life, Plath envisions night as interminable hours of unbearable solitude. Rather than spend his nights in quiet contemplation, the speaker preoccupies himself with replaying the same painful memories “over and over” (Plath 8).  If insomnia is, as Greg Johnson argues, the byproduct of an overactive mind, “Insomniac” seems to warn against such over-thinking as it is just the speaker’s introspective tendency to turn inward and obsessively sit alone with his thoughts that hinders him from attaining any sort of tranquility. The fact that Plath refers to this ceaseless replaying of cognition and memory as an “old, garnular movie” reveals the story of his life is nothing more than a film: compelling and life-like but ultimately false. This almost Buddhist-like reading of reality is further supported a few lines later when Plath claims memories “jostle” each other for face time like “obsolete film stars” (Plath 14). Meaning to push, elbow or bump someone, typically in a crowd, “jostle” portrays the speaker’s mind as a tumult of thoughts where differing versions of reality compete for dominance.  If memory is nothing more than a “film star,” the speaker’s recollection of events is simply a dramatizing of reality-not reality itself. Though writers try to make sense of the world through the construction of stories, Plath suggests that imposing similar rules of resolution and climax onto our own lives is ultimately futile. No matter how many nights the speaker stays up “replaying” his days of childhood trying to extract an overarching meaning, the images of his life are always fading and granular- they’re never intelligible.  In this way, Plath proves frenzied thinking lies at the root of insomnia, which might elucidate the malady’s prominence among our greatest artists.

Plath continues to portray the artist’s “unblinking consciousness” as the source of the speaker’s nighttime suffering when she notes that his “forehead is bumpy as a sack of rocks” (Plath 13).  Figuratively, the rocks represent the heaviness of the speaker’s thoughts.  Like a sack of rocks, which is heavy and burdensome to transport, his fitful debating and analyzing weigh him down and keep him from slumber.  The fact that his unremitting thoughts disfigure his face and make his forehead “bumpy” suggests a restless mind can wreck your well-being and devastate your sanity.  Though in the rational, scientifically-oriented West we tend to glorify reason and judgement, in “Insomniac” such traditional indicators of intelligence manifest as pathologies and overall deteriorate the speaker’s health.  For artists like Wordsworth and Plath, then, “voracious scrutiny” of the world was not a gift, but a curse- causing manic, hysterical thoughts to scurry across the consciousness until it was impossible to fall asleep.

The speaker isn’t offered even momentary relief from this voracious scrutiny, we learn, because he has become “immune to pills” (Plath 15). So despairing is his condition that no pill seems to work, neither “red” nor “purple” nor “blue” (Plath 15). Rather than alleviate his symptoms and soothe his troubled mind, ironically the sleeping pills only serve to underscore his frustration: “How,” the speaker bitterly exclaims, “they lit the tedium of the protracted evening!” (Plath 16).

In the next line, Plath depicts sleeping pills as “sugary planets,” delectable sweets the speaker longs for (Plath 17).  Her choice of the word “planets” is particularly telling: like a faraway planet millions of light years away, sleep-that unfathomably ordinary yet precious thing-seems, for the speaker, unbearably remote.  When he can persuade sleep, that enticing but elusive lover, to stay the night, it transports him to another universe, another life, one “baptized in no-life for a while” (Plath 18).  And here Plath poses a lovely paradox: by equating sleep with holy water, she implies the quiet death of sleep is essential for life.  Our nightly rendezvous with slumber is purifying like water- it renews and rejuvenates us.  Here, the religious allusion to baptism seems noteworthy: if baptism is the religious rite of immersing someone in water, symbolizing purification or regeneration and admission to the Christian Church, the fact that Plath compares sleep to a baptism suggests sleep is restorative.  Furthermore, because baptism is often performed on young children and accompanied by name-giving, sleep represents a rebirth-a cleansing of the day and a chance to be reinvented and start over.  

Plath reinforces this image of sleep as rebirth in the next line when she likens awakening from a good night’s rest to the “sweet, drugged waking of a forgetful baby” (Plath 19).  Like baptisms, babies call to mind purity and freshness, which indicates the mind can be reborn when it’s been able to renew and clarify itself.  Yet rather than submerge itself in the forgetful waters of sleep and wake up to find itself revived, the insomniac mind stays up, grouchy and restless, not reborn but dead to the new day.  

The astounding power of the artist to carefully observe and render the world is just what leads to this figurative death.  Stress.  Worry.  Anxiety.  All result from a sharp, keen mind and represent the driving forces of insomnia.  Plath captures this idea perfectly when she calls the insomniac’s head a “little interior of grey mirrors” (Plath 22).  Recalling the earlier image of the sky as blue-black carbon paper, this portrait of the mind as a “mirror” reveals thought is an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to recreate the world.  After all, mirrors only reflect reality-they aren’t reality itself.  The figure of mirror also brings to mind a fun house, an erie place where the normal laws of the universe are suspended and once ordinary impressions appear distorted.  Grey-that dreadfully bland color-creates a mood of tedium and listlessness, which proves the speaker feels like a prisoner when trapped in his mind and deprived of the external.

In the end, “Insomniac” is not just about one person’s inability to sleep-it’s about the terrible power of the intellect to cut us off from existence.  For Plath, the artist’s mind is both a prison and a fun house: like a prison, the mind’s persistent thinking confines us to the four walls of our skull and, like a fun house, its depictions of our lives are often inaccurate.  

 

Milton’s “When I Consider How My Light is Spent”

John Milton

WHEN I CONSIDER HOW MY LIGHT IS SPENT

By John Milton

When I consider how my light is spent,

Ere half my days in this dark world and wide,

And that one talent which is death to hide

Lodged with me useless, though my soul more bent

To serve therewith my Maker, and present

My true account, lest He returning chide;

Doth God exact day-labor, light denied?”

I fondly ask. But Patience, to prevent

That murmur, soon replies, “God doth not need

Either man’s work or His own gifts. Who best

Bear His mild yoke, they serve Him best. His state

Is kingly: thousands at His bidding speed,

And post o’er land and ocean without rest;

They also serve who only stand and wait.”

In his poem, “When I Consider How My Light Is Spent,” Milton meditates on how to best serve God. The speaker-much like Milton himself-is confronted with personal tragedy when he goes blind and can no longer write. Devastated, our speaker must come to grips with his condition and find hope in darkness.

The poem opens on a despairing world defined by night: “I’ve spent half my days, he laments woefully, “in this dark world and wide” (Milton 2). Though the world is “wide” and beckons with possibility, it is amassed in black, rendering the speaker’s anguish at being excluded all the more tragic.

In the next lines, he continues to bemoan his misfortunate claiming that his one talent which is death to hide” has been “lodg’d with me useless” (Milton 3-4). In the same way that the vast possibilities of the world taunt him now that he’s incapacitated, that fact that his talent is “hidden” rather than unrecoverable operates to torment the speaker. His one talent-his gift with words-is not permanently lost but rather “useless” without his sight, rendering his loss all the more excruciating. The verb “lodge”-meaning to make firmly fixed or embedded in a particular place- creates a sense of claustrophobia as if his talent were being confined and points to his debilitating loss.

As readers and witnesses to his suffering, we feel sympathy for the speaker’s plight. When he spitefully questions God’s fairness a few lines later, we believe him justified: “Doth God exact day-labor, light denied?” (Milton 7). Hopeless and bitter, the speaker makes some valid points: how can God give us a destiny to fulfill but deny us the means to attain it? 

Before the speaker can challenge the Almighty, however, Patience intervenes and explains the true meaning of service: “God doth not need/Either man’s work, or his own gifts: who best/ Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best” (Milton 8-11). Though the speaker imagines “his work” as his service to God, Patience-personified as a full-blown proper noun with the ability to speak- tells him otherwise; serving God is not money or prestige or the acquiring of worldly power but the willing acceptance of His will. 

The speaker may believe he wants to write to serve God, but his true motives are a little less certain: does he want to compose the next great American novel out of an altruistic need to glimpse some sort of existential truth or is he really an ambitious man whose new disability interferes with less lofty, material objectives?

In this way, the speaker stands in for us, the reader. Like our tormented speaker, we, too, confuse worldly success with spiritual attainment. What’s interesting about Patience’s response is her use of the word “bear.” The word “bear” carries heavy, burdensome connotations and possesses several meanings: 1) to carry; 2) to take responsibility for; 3) to be able to accept or stand up to; and 4) to endure. Each of these definitions shares a solemn sense of duty.

What’s more fascinating is what we’re asked to bear, “his mild yoke” (Milton 11). Acting as the grammatical object of the verb “bear,” the noun “yoke” refers to a wooden crosspiece that is fastened over the necks of two animals and attached to a plow or cart that they are to pull. Here, the implicit comparison of man to steer and God to driver suggests man’s proper role is a submissive one. Rather than wrestle our fate from the universe, Milton seems to suggest we are better off assenting to God’s plan (however seemingly heartless or unfair) and letting him act as our guide.

This notion of service as obedience is a very Christian idea and echoes Milton’s argument for self-effacement and submission in his masterwork Paradise Lost. The poem’s final line- “they also serve who only stand and wait”-reinforces this image of service as passive and acts as a hopeful reminder to the depressed and downtrodden: if we sit and wait, Milton argues, darkness is usually just before dawn.

 

Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “Love is Not All”

millay

LOVE IS NOT ALL (SONNET XXX)

By Edna St. Vincent Millay

Love is not all: it is not meat nor drink

Nor slumber nor a roof against the rain;

Nor yet a floating spar to men that sink

And rise and sink and rise and sink again;

Love can not fill the thickened lung with breath,

Nor clean the blood, nor set the fractured bone;

Yet many a man is making friends with death

Even as I speak, for lack of love alone.

It well may be that in a difficult hour,

Pinned down by pain and moaning for release,

Or nagged by want past resolution’s power,

I might be driven to sell your love for peace,

Or trade the memory of this night for food.

It well may be. I do not think I would.

One of my guilty pleasures is Chris Brown and Jordan Spark’s “No Air.”  I have many an embarrassing memory of my best friend and I blasting this cheesy, over-the-top love song during senior year.  Devastated that she lost the “love of her life,” Sparks opens the song with crooning melodrama: “Losing you,” she insists, “is like living in a world with no air.”  

But is it?  

19th century poetry and sappy top 40 love songs tend to exaggerate the role of love in our lives.  This idealized vision of love is just what modernist poet Edna St. Vincent Millay is rallying against in her lovely, understated poem “Love is Not All.”  Though Millay uses none of the unorthodox pyrotechnics of her modernist contemporaries, she still manages to undermine convention, albeit in a more traditional style. In this Shakespearean-style sonnet, Millay resorts to none of the time-worn cliches about love and instead subverts such familiar platitudes:

…it is not meat or drink

Nor slumber, nor roof from rain;

Nor a floating spar to men that sink

And rise and sink and rise and sink again;

Love cannot fill the thickened lung with breath,

Nor clean the blood nor set the fractured bone” (Millay 1-6).

Here, the profusion of negation suggests Millay is more interested in revealing what love is not than in defining exactly what love is. The poem’s very title- “Love is Not All”- refuses to offer a concrete definition, only explaining love in terms of what it is not.

For Millay, love is not adequately described by the banalities of cheesy Hallmark cards and rom-coms. The objects Millay chooses to name in her illumination of what love is not- “meat”/“drink”/“slumber”/“roof”-represent necessities essential for physical survival. Though gushy love songs may proclaim that “love lifts us up where we belong,” Millay reveals such hyperbolic language a farce: however giddy and exciting the experience of love, it can never, she argues, sustain us. And despite popular claims to the contrary, love is not redemptive: it cannot reawaken our “breath” or heal a “fractured” bone. We can be pretty certain that Millay would disagree with the Beatles’ sweet-if naïve-assertion that “all you need is love.”

So is Millay just a coldly rational, love-bashing cynic? Interestingly, no. In the tradition of the Petrarchian sonnet, “Love is Not All” sees a major shift at its 8th line:

Yet many a man is making friends with death

Even as I speak, for lack of love alone” (Millay 7-8).

So though Millay aims to refute the prevailing misconception that love is “all”, she is not negating its importance all together. Sure, love might not bring a drowning man to shore but it can still provide solace in a lonely world.

 Millay’s problem, then, is not with love itself but its exaggerated importance in our minds.  You can profess genuine, profound love for another, she’d say, but please, for the love of god, don’t claim that living without them is like “living in a world with no air.”