My 2016 Reading Challenge item of “at least three poems” – I picked the number somewhat arbitrarily, since I already knew I’d be likely to choose short ones – ended up being one of the most interesting of the batch. First, I put it off for eight months. That’s some dedicated procrastination, I think. Second, I ended up reading closer to ten poems in my search for three to write about. I could have just chosen the first three, but not every poem I read moved me, or at least left me with something to say, and that’s the point of poetry, isn’t it?
I think it’ll become clear through this post that I actually have no idea what the point of poetry is, if there is a singular one. However, the exercise of purposefully reading poetry turned out to be quite nice.
Ever since my last Reading Challenge item, when I re-read Anne of Green Gables, I’ve been wanting to read some Tennyson. I can thank Anne Shirley’s adoration for his lyricism, particularly for ‘The Lady of Shalott’, which she acts out with friends. I selected something a little shorter, though, and went with ‘The Eagle’, a short but beautiful piece written in the 1830s and published in 1851.
He clasps the crag with crooked hands;
Close to the sun in lonely lands,
Ring’d with the azure world, he stands.
The wrinkled sea beneath him crawls;
He watches from his mountain walls,
And like a thunderbolt he falls.
I majestically declaimed the poem to my cat, who remained unimpressed. I, however, enjoyed the sounds of the words, and the feel of them in my mouth as I read the poem aloud. The syntax is beautiful, and while the poem is brief, it creates vivid imagery. One might expect an eagle to perch, rather than stand, but the height of his position is better conveyed through ‘stands’, as high and unreachable as the mountains, near to the sun. The eagle is powerful, so free in his wide-open word of sky that even the vastness of the ocean seems wrinkly and slow-moving beneath him.
I liked this poem, both the imagery and the cadence of the iambic tetrameter. Nature in art has always been fairly appealing to me; I like pictures of mountains and trees. When I was twelve, I wrote a short story about a wolf pack, and I wrote a couple of (thankfully lost) poems about rivers during my teens as well. The simple elegance of this poem made me feel calm. Poetry doesn’t have to be about the meaning of life to be powerful. Although, maybe this eagle is a metaphor for life, and having the strength to reach for your goals. Maybe it is about the meaning of life. Oh no… Now I have no idea. I’ve reached a crisis of doubt.
When in doubt, turn to Google, which tells me that some scholars interpret the poem, and it’s brevity, as the eagle being a part of the mountain’s identity, and breaking away as it strikes. It begs the question of what happens to the eagle after the poem. To be honest, I kind of liked my panicky interpretation better!
I also read Christina Rossetti’s poem, ‘One Sea-Side Grave.’ An English poet who wrote during the 1800s, Rossetti is probably best known for her poem, ‘The Goblin Market’, which is a very cool title for a kind of strange poem that I only read the synopsis of. (Sorry). I hadn’t previously been very familiar with her work, and the melancholy yearning of ‘One Sea-Side Grave’ really struck me. First published in 1884, though written about thirty years earlier, the poem embodies mourning, death, love, and remembrance, which are common themes through Rossetti’s other work.
Unmindful of the roses,
Unmindful of the thorn,
A reaper tired reposes
Among his gathered corn:
So might I, till the morn!
Cold as the cold Decembers,
Past as the days that set,
While only one remembers
And all the rest forget, –
But one remembers yet.
Reading aloud again, this poem didn’t flow as smoothly as the Tennyson on the first read-through, but I suspect that’s intentional. The weariness of a cold grave isn’t supposed to be comfortable. I am no poetry expert (clearly), but I will admit that the punctuation stood out to me in this poem, whereas I didn’t notice it much during Tennyson’s ‘The Eagle’, and that seems to me something that is not desired. I think the exclamation mark is what really brought the punctuation to my notice.
This poem better fit with my vague notion that poetry is often about sad things, which makes it sombre and important. However, this poem also felt cold and depressing to read. I like the eagle one better.
I had to include one of Shakespeare’s sonnets, because in spite of my loathing for Hamlet, I am still a fan of The Bard and his trademark eloquence. There’s a reason his works have endured, after all. I came across Sonnet XXXIII in a curated list of poems about morning. ‘That sounds perfect,’ I thought. ‘Much more cheerful than a poem about a grim seaside grave.’
Full many a glorious morning have I seen
Flatter the mountain tops with sovereign eye,
Kissing with golden face the meadows green,
Gilding pale streams with heavenly alchemy;
Anon permit the basest clouds to ride
With ugly rack on his celestial face,
And from the forlorn world his visage hide,
Stealing unseen to west with this disgrace:
Even so my sun one early morn did shine,
With all triumphant splendour on my brow;
But out, alack, he was but one hour mine,
The region cloud hath mask’d him from me now.
Yet him for this my love no whit disdaineth;
Suns of the world may stain when heaven’s sun staineth.
The opening description of a ‘glorious morning’ made me feel confident I’d chosen the right poem. I’m a morning person. I regularly get up as soon as it’s light to walk the dog. Rambling along the path while the sunrise glazes the horizon like stained glass, enjoying the near-solitude of the early hour and the freshness of the air is one of my favourite things ever.
However, it soon became clear that this poem is not simply about a beautiful morning. The metaphorical nature of poetry strikes again! This poem is actually about Shakespeare (probably – it’s generally assumed this sonnet is autobiographical) having his feelings hurt by his friend, leaving him feeling isolated and lonely. The friend in question is often believed to be the Earl of Southampton, who was Shakespeare’s patron at the time.
I’m not going to lie, I was disappointed when I made the realization that the cheerful morning poem was concealing a heart of bitterness. Evidently I am not deep enough for poetry. However, the sonnet ends on a positive note, suggesting that the poet will forgive his friend, and that disappointment is a natural aspect of life, and can be overcome. It’s a nice way to close it.