And the Pride of Life that planned her, stilly couches she.
Steel chambers, late the pyres
Of her salamandrine fires,
Cold currents thrid, and turn to rhythmic tidal lyres.
Over the mirrors meant
To glass the opulent
The sea-worm crawls — grotesque, slimed, dumb, indifferent.
Jewels in joy designed
To ravish the sensuous mind
Lie lightless, all their sparkles bleared and black and blind.
Dim moon-eyed fishes near
Gaze at the gilded gear
And query: “What does this vaingloriousness down here?”
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 —
A Shape of Ice, for the time far and dissociate.
And as the smart ship grew
In stature, grace, and hue,
In shadowy silent distance grew the Iceberg too.
Alien they seemed to be;
No mortal eye could see
The intimate welding of their later history,
Or sign that they were bent
By paths coincident
On being anon twin halves of one august event,
Till the Spinner of the Years
Said “Now!” And each one hears,
And consummation comes, and jars two hemispheres.
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).
“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.
the Misters won’t call lots of other folks Mister.
They call them, Hey George!
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:
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
Her O-mouth grieves at the world; yours is unaffected,
And your first gift is making stone out of everything.
I wake to a mausoleum; you are here,
Ticking your fingers on the marble table, looking for cigarettes,
Spiteful as a woman, but not so nervous,
And dying to say something unanswerable.
The moon, too, abuses her subjects,
But in the daytime she is ridiculous.
Your dissatisfactions, on the other hand,
Arrive through the mailslot with loving regularity,
White and blank, expansive as carbon monoxide.
No day is safe from news of you,
Walking about in Africa maybe, but thinking of me.
In her near flawless poem “The Rival,” Sylvia Plath maps the geography of her own resentment toward her husband’s mistress, Assia Weevil. The poem’s title suggests one who is engaged in competition against another for the same objective or for superiority in the same field. Though many have attributed the status of the rival in this poem to Plath’s mother, Aurelia Plath, and even her husband, Ted Hughes, the poem’s title clearly refers to Assia Weevil. Considering the denotations of the word “rival,” it’s logical to say these women were competitors vying for the same thing: the handsome, charming Ted Hughes.
The first line introduces a metaphor for her husband’s mistress that Plath will sustain over the course of the poem:
“If the moon smiled, she would resemble you.
You leave the same impression
Of something beautiful but annihilating
Both of you are great light borrowers.
Her O-mouth grieves at the world; yours is unaffected” (Plath 1-5).
By comparing Assia to the moon-a traditional symbol for cold detachment and primitive femininity-Plath depicts her antagonist as cruel and stony-hearted. Ironically, Assia’s “beauty” is described as “annihilating,” which suggests a woman’s allure can pose danger. Like the moon which shines beautiful and white in the sky but unleashes the evil and depravity associated with night, Assia’s beauty wins her the adoration of Hughes but destroys his wife. Plath only makes one significant distinction between her enemy and the moon: while the moon “grieves at the world,” Assia appears “unaffected” (Plath 5). The fact that the moon-an inanimate object-demonstrates a warm sympathy for humanity underscores Assia’s heartlessness. In the same way that she feels indifferent toward the suffering of the world, she cares little, Plath would argue, about the devastation and heartache her affair with Ted has caused.
Plath elaborates on this depiction in the next line when she makes an implicit comparison between Assia and Medusa:
“And your first gift is making stone out of everything” (Plath 6).
Like Assia, Medusa’s beauty wins her the affections of many but eventually leads to her downfall. Originally a fair, golden-haired maiden, as a priestess of Athena, Medusa was sworn to a life of celibacy. When she broke her oath and fell in love with Poseidon, Athena punished her by transforming her into a terrifying, snake-headed monster. From then on, anyone who had the misfortune of staring into her eyes would be reduced to stone.
The parallels between Assia and Medusa are endless: both are fair and attractive, both violate a sacred oath (for Medusa, the promise to remain celibate; for Assia, the bonds of another couple’s marriage) and both see their beauty transform them into a kind of monster. By comparing her rival to something as hideous and appalling as Medusa, Plath implies her husband’s infidelity is despicable. What’s even more heart-breaking than the discovery of his betrayal is the fact that his mistress has no remorse. Like Medusa, like the moon, she is merciless, unfeeling as stone.
Many say the most hurtful thing about infidelity is not the cheating itself, but the lies and deceit that accompany such a violation of trust. This is certainly true in the case of Hughes and Plath. In the third stanza, Plath explains how she realizes Assia and her husband are having an affair when she intercepts their letters:
“Your dissatisfactions, on the other hand,
Arrive through the mailslot with loving regularity,
White and blank, expansive as carbon monoxide” (Plath 13-15).
Here, the phrase “loving regularity” stings with bitter irony. For Plath, their correspondence-a symbol of their budding romance -is not “loving” but rather a kind of poison, as deadly as carbon monoxide. The fact that their affair is described as “white” and “blank” suggests that-like the colorless, odorless gas-their relationship is present but difficult to spot. After all, a husband never cheats at home. He stays at work late. He checks into a hotel. Cheating involves a large dose of deception.
What’s agonizing for the betrayed is not so much the cheating itself (which, yes, is horribly, unimaginably painful) but the constant lying such cheating entails. This subtle sense that her husband is cheating torments Plath, who accurately suspects he is having an affair but has no concrete evidence save a few of their letters. A sultry woman caller who rings during dinner. A few lingering, too flirtatious looks. An unrelenting stream of letters. This is all Plath can see of their affair. By comparing these hints of infidelity to carbon monoxide, Plath indicates her suspicions are like a gas-they diffuse and spread but are insubstantial; she can’t see them or smell them but they consume her.
Stitches to show something’s missing? No, no? Then
How can we give you a thing?
Open your hand.
Empty? Empty. Here is a hand
To fill it and willing
To bring teacups and roll away headaches
And do whatever you tell it.
Will you marry it?
It is guaranteed
To thumb shut your eyes at the end
And dissolve of sorrow.
We make new stock from the salt.
I notice you are stark naked.
How about this suit——
Black and stiff, but not a bad fit.
Will you marry it?
It is waterproof, shatterproof, proof
Against fire and bombs through the roof.
Believe me, they’ll bury you in it.
Now your head, excuse me, is empty.
I have the ticket for that.
Come here, sweetie, out of the closet.
Well, what do you think of that?
Naked as paper to start
But in twenty-five years she’ll be silver,
In fifty, gold.
A living doll, everywhere you look.
It can sew, it can cook,
It can talk, talk, talk.
It works, there is nothing wrong with it.
You have a hole, it’s a poultice.
You have an eye, it’s an image.
My boy, it’s your last resort.
Will you marry it, marry it, marry it.
In her remorselessly satirical poem “The Applicant,” Sylvia Plath explores the restrictive nature of 1950s gender roles. The poem’s very title rings impersonal and business-like as it shrouds the potential candidate in anonymity. This namelessness begs the question: who is the applicant and what is he applying for?
The first stanza doesn’t answer much of our question:
“First are you our sort of a person?
Do you wear
A glass eye, false teeth, or a crutch,
A brace or a hook,
Rubber breasts or a rubber crotch” (Plath 1-5).
From the very first line, the interviewer seems antagonistic and accusatory; rather than kindly introduce himself or offer the applicant a cup of coffee as is common courtesy in an interview, he opens with a tough, hardball question, one that’s almost impossible to answer: “First, are you our sort of a person?” (Plath 1). Here, the presence of the 1st person plural “our”-as opposed to the 1st person singular “my”-suggests the interviewer is not judging the applicant by his own standards but by the standards of a greater entity, perhaps society at large.
What “sort” of person society desires is a question Plath contemplates over the course of the poem. The next several lines catalog symbols of disability: a “glass eye,” “false teeth,” a “crutch,” a “brace,” a “hook,” a “rubber breast,” and a “rubber crotch.” Though one would think such handicaps would pose an obstacle to employment, the interviewer seems angry when the applicant responds that he has no disabilities:
“No, no? Then
How can we give you a thing?” (Plath 6-7).
The fact that the speaker wants him to be impaired indicates the position requires some level of disablement and demands the candidate adopt something artificial.
In the second stanza, we finally learn what position the applicant is interviewing for: the role of husband; however, as the poem progresses, the interaction between the speaker and applicant becomes less of an interview and more of a commercial:
“Open your hand.
Empty? Empty. Here is a hand
To fill it and willing
To bring teacups and roll away headaches
And do whatever you tell it.
Will you marry it?” (Plath 9-14).
Interestingly, here Plath portrays modern marriage as a commercial transaction in which women are objects to be sold. The woman’s objectification is made clear from her first introduction as a “hand.” Rather than name the potential wife or even introduce her as a complete, functioning body, Plath presents her only as a “hand,” a fragment of a complete person, thus objectifying her. The word “hand” immediately evokes marriage (as in, to take “one’s hand”). By identifying the woman only as a “hand”-a potent symbol of matrimony-Plath reveals the devastating extent to which the role of wife comprises a woman’s selfhood.
More important is what the hand does in the poem. The hand does not sit stagnant but rather “brings” teacups and “rolls” away headaches for her husband-to-be, an indisputable symbol of women’s submission to men. The unmistakably domestic character of the verbs reinforce this image of a woman’s role in the home. By employing images that connote ill health and depicting the wife as healer of such ailments, Plath again suggests society imagines the modern woman’s proper role is as a caregiver.
Though “The Applicant” is no doubt a condemnation of women’s traditional gender roles, that’s not to say Plath didn’t believe men were victims of gender policing as well. In the next stanza, the speaker turns his attention from the wife for sale back to our main character:
“I notice you are stark naked.
How about this suit-
Black and stiff, but not a bad fit
Will you marry it?” (Plath 19-22).
Here, the “stiff,” “black” suit embodies masculinity in 1950s America. Just as repressive post-war America demanded women be perfect portraits of domesticity, strict, normative gender roles required men to be the heads of households and breadwinners. The fact that Plath describes the applicant’s role as something put-on like a suit reveals the artificiality of all gender roles, ultimately proving prevailing ideas of femininity and masculinity false.
For Plath, what constitutes womanhood (or manhood, for that matter) is merely a construction, not intrinsic to our actual biological gender. This reading is further supported by the fact that the applicant is “stark naked” before the speaker offers him a suit. If nudity connotes purity and innocence, the applicant’s nakedness indicates at this moment he is free of restrictive ideas about gender. It is only when he puts on the suit that he adopts his prescribed gender role and allows himself to be confined by its rigid expectations for his behavior.
“The Applicant” finally culminates in tragedy when the poem’s signature refrain (will you marry it?) moves from question to statement a few stanzas later:
“My boy, it’s your last resort.
Will you marry it, marry it, marry it” (Plath 39-40).
This syntactical change from interrogative to declarative may seem insignificant enough; however, it represents a major shift in the poem. Though the prospect of marriage and a traditional, nuclear family once figured as a desirable option for the applicant, by the poem’s end, such a lifestyle is no longer a choice-it’s a requirement. This shift from possibility to inevitability leads to an unsettling conclusion: no matter how much one rallies against ideas of masculinity and femininity, such limiting gender roles, Plath seems to contend, are inescapable.