On How Gazing Upon Once Great Ruins Can Cure Us of Our Status Anxiety

ozymandias

In the 13th century BCE, Ramses II was the most powerful man in Egypt.  Over the course of his reign, the great pharaoh, also known as Ozymandias, was beloved by his subjects.  From the Delta to Nubia, Ramses built grand monuments to immortalize his greatness.  So obsessed was he with preserving his legacy that he constructed more statues of himself than any other monarch.  But today what remains of this once legendary leader?  a brief mention in our history lesson on ancient Egypt?  perhaps an entry in the Encyclopedia Britannica?  Despite his egotistical efforts to defeat eternity, time- as always- triumphed: three thousand years later, nothing remains of Ramses’s worldly accomplishments, as romantic poet Percy Shelly wrote in his 1817 poem “Ozymandias,” but a “shattered visage.”  

It is a cruel irony that we squander so many of our limited hours on earth trying to acquire power and prestige when, in the end, neither much matters.  Much like Ramses hopelessly attempting to erect an everlasting monument to his earthly success, we in the modern age hysterically scramble for status: envy-inducing job titles, degrees from esteemed Ivy Leagues- anything that signifies we are worthy of admiration and respect.  When we’ve captured that majestic-if elusive- butterfly of professional, material success, we feel like who we are may finally be enough.  But if that butterfly manages to slip from our grasp or if- god forbid- we never catch its shimmering wings in our nets, we’ll never respect ourselves.  Because we in the modern meritocracy attach moral significance to social standing, if we fall from the social ladder or never ascend to its highest rungs, we’ll contend our underachievement is a result of a character deficiency.  “Why did we fail to make something of ourselves?” we’ll wonder, “had we been lazy?  or had we simply not been intelligent/talented enough?”  This is why over-achieving straight-A students leap in front of trains when they’re rejected from Harvard: to go to a lesser school- they’ve been told- is to be lesser.  And if you’re lesser, why live at all?  

This may be a drastic example, but similar feelings of inferiority at one time or another beset us all.  According to erudite and edifying explorer of human history Alain De Botton, the same brilliant mind who elucidated how status is a construction of culture and expectation causes malaise and discontentment, status anxiety, or the worry that we’re nobodies in the eyes of others, is “capable of ruining extended stretches” of our existence.  If we’re unsuccessful in our quest to secure the love of the world, if we never receive its tokens of affection, renown and distinction, we foresee one shameful word engraved on our tombstones: “failure.”  Believing achievement equates to worth, we hustle to gain admission to the most exclusive universities, land that million dollar book deal and make six figures.  We fritter away a significant portion of our lives either chasing validation or fretting that what we have accomplished is still not good enough.  

So how can we cure ourselves of this destructive notion that the world is divided between winners and losers?  How can we alleviate the psychological anguish that accompanies the belief that we’re only as lovable as our accomplishments?  In his immeasurably interesting Status Anxiety, De Botton offers an unexpected remedy: gaze upon the decaying beauty of ancient ruins.  Thousands of years ago, Ramses II’s commanding statue beheld the ancient world’s most magnificent civilization- today, both his statue and kingdom have disintegrated to dust, as insignificant as a speck of Saharan sand.  At the height of Rome’s power, the Forum bustled as the cultural and political epicenter of the world’s mightiest empire- several millennia later, only the skeletons of a few buildings remain, their pillars looking out at the decay with the solemnity of defeated kings.  Instead of host lavish banquets for dignified statesman, today the Forum is just another “must-see” for pushy, poorly dressed tourists in cargo shorts and jeans.  As Genesis 3:19 so poetically says, “For dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.”  

That we all return to dust seems to validate the bleak nihilistic belief in life’s inherent meaninglessness.  Yet the fact that all things must end is not cause for despair.  The crumbling fragments of ancient Rome and the declining figure of Ramses II make us conscious of our ultimate insignificance, yes, but- if anything- this awareness puts our petty status anxieties into proper perspective.  No matter how brave our military exploits or how vast our lands, the disquieting truth is no one will remember them a thousand years hence.  Countless important figures have been lost through the ages: once influential world leaders dim into the oblivion of irrelevance and obscurity, all-powerful empires topple over, nations’ borders are drawn and redrawn.  Because our mortal accomplishments inevitably perish in the almighty face of eternity, De Botton suggests it’s pointless to worry too much about our status in society:

classical ruins

“Ruins reprove us for our folly in sacrificing peace of mind for the unstable rewards of earthly power.  Beholding old stones, we may feel our anxieties over our achievements- and the lack of them- slacken.  What does it matter, really, if we have not succeeded in the eyes of others, if there are no monuments and processions in our honor or if no one smiled at us at a recent gathering?  Everything is, in any event, fated to disappear, leaving only the New Zealanders to sketch the ruins of our boulevards and offices.  Judged against eternity, how little of what agitates us makes any difference.

Ruins bid us to surrender our strivings and our fantasies of perfection and fulfillment.  They remind us that we cannot defy time and that we are merely playthings of forces of destruction which can at best be kept at bay but never vanquished.  We enjoy local victories, perhaps claim a few years in which we are able to impose a degree of order upon the chaos, but ultimately will slop back into a primeval soup.  If this prospect has the power to console us, it is perhaps because the greater part of our anxieties stems from an exaggerated sense of the importance of our projects and concerns.  We are tortured by our ideals and by a punishingly high-minded sense of the gravity of what we are doing.

Christian moralists have long understood that to the end of reassuring the anxious, they will do well to emphasize that contrary to the first principle of optimism, everything will in fact turn out for the worst: the ceiling will collapse, the statue will topple, we will die, everyone we love will vanish and all our achievements and even our names will be trod underfoot.  We may derive some comfort from this, however, if a part of us is able instinctively to recognize how closely our miseries are bound up with the grandiosity of our ambitions.  To consider our petty status worries from the perspective of a thousand years hence is to be granted a rare, tranquillising glimpse of our own insignificance.”

In the poem “Ozymandias,” Ramses II declares, “My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings.  Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!”  But, as Shelley observes in the next line, a few millennia later, “nothing beside remains.”  Ramses II’s ruins remind us of the futility of acquiring worldly fame as, in the end, nothing is eternal: somebodies will become nobodies just as surely as buildings will be reduced to rubble.

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.

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.